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Arizona governor proposes crackdown on school vouchers

Arizona’s universal school voucher program would face greater oversight and restrictions under proposed legislation unveiled by Gov. Katie Hobbs Tuesday. 

Citing a projection the empowerment scholarship accounts (ESA) will cost the state nearly $1 billion this fiscal year, the Democratic governor called for increased accountability and transparency.

 ”Arizonans deserve to know their money is being spent on educating students, not on handouts to unaccountable schools and unvetted vendors for luxury spending,” Hobbs, said in a statement. “My plan is simple: every school receiving taxpayer dollars must have basic standards to show they’re keeping our students safe and giving Arizona children the education they deserve.”

“Arizonans deserve to know their money is being spent on educating students, not on handouts to unaccountable schools and unvetted vendors for luxury spending,” Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs said.

Bloomberg News

In 2022, the state enacted what then-Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, called the most expansive school choice law in the nation, allowing state money to flow to parents and guardians to help pay for private school tuition, online curriculum, and educational supplies.

Hobbs’ proposed legislation would require manual approval of purchases exceeding $500 to ensure the money was used for an academic purpose and authorize the Arizona Auditor General to monitor and report on how private schools are spending ESA funds.

In addition, private schools accepting the vouchers would be prohibited from hiking tuition and fee costs higher than the inflation rate, while students would need to have attended a public school for 100 days in order to be eligible to participate in the ESA program.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, an elected Republican, countered that his office has been scrutinizing spending.

“In 2023, we rejected several thousand ESA applications for lack of adequate documentation and suspended almost 2,200 accounts totaling $21 million because the student was enrolled in a public school,” he said in a statement. “We’ve also rejected more than 12,000 ESA purchase order requests.” 

Hobbs’ proposal faces a GOP-controlled legislature, which approved the ESA expansion. Republican State Sen. Ken Bennett, who chairs the chamber’s education committee, said he was open to “common sense improvements” to the program in order to enhance student safety, protect the rights of disabled pupils, and level the playing field between public, charter, and private schools.

 ”I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues this session to provide transparency and accountability, but we will not add layers of bureaucratic red tape, as some of the governor’s proposals suggest, or discourage parents from participating in ESAs,” he said in a statement.

ESAs, which became universally available Sept. 24, 2022, have proven to be costlier than expected.

Initial estimates released in June 2022 by the state’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee cited what it called a “highly speculative” projection universal expansion would cost $33.4 million in fiscal 2023, rising to $125.4 million in fiscal 2025. The program’s actual price tag was $474 million in fiscal 2023, which ended June 30.

In fiscal 2024, the state appropriated $624 million for 68,380 students.

As of Tuesday, the program was funding 72,949 students. The latest quarterly report on the ESA program showed the average amount per student at $9,782.

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