The proposed state budget released today marks some strides forward for public education funding, including a 0.9% increase in base level funding.
But Democrats and public education advocates say the draft falls short of Governor Katie Hobbs’ initial commitment to creating steadier and sweeping new spending in education, which by-and-large hinged on a promise to eliminate, or at least slow, enrollment in the universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
As lawmakers mull the budget, longevity and stability for public education remains at the forefront.
“I know that we pushed very hard for education funding, and we’ve seen within the horrible framework that Republicans have given us, we have better education funding,” Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said. “We were able to make some steps forward on that, but only for one year. Where are we after that?”
The draft budget, released this afternoon, eliminates results-based funding, which frees up $68.6 million to make way for a 0.9% base level increase.
The Arizona Department of Education would also be granted $300 million in one-time supplementary funding. A spokesperson for the governor said the funds are not specifically meant for ESA accounts.
Other line-item spending for education includes $15 million to dual enrollment programs, $10 million to increase administrative funding, $5 million to broadband funding and $3 million to professional development for teachers and other personnel.
And in higher education, the budget strips funding from freedom schools and invests the money back into the universities directly. There is also a $20 million earmark for the Promise Scholarship program and $15 million for the Arizona Teachers Academy.
Though the budget draft marks some wins in education spending, the lack of a cap on the universal ESA program emerged as a point of contention for Democrats, public education advocacy groups and the attorney general.
Hobbs made a repeal of the universal program a centerpiece of her 2024 budget proposal, but the promise failed to materialize.
At a press conference this morning, Hobbs said “We can agree that the voucher program is a drain on resources that should be directed at public education, but I didn’t say we’re going to end it. It is a goal certainly, and we put that in our executive budget as the goal knowing that we were going to be in a place where we would have to negotiate.”
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee projects the ESA program to cost the state $425 million as universal enrollment continues to soar. The estimate accounts for 55,180 enrollees. As of May 1, 53,945 students are enrolled in the ESA program.
JLBC estimated enrollment to grow to 68,380 in FY2024.
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, and Reps. Laura Terech, D-Phoenix, and Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, all tweeted their opposition to a lack of a cap ahead of the budget drop.
Both Marsh and Terech noted the expansion continues to cause problems for the original recipients of the program, namely special education students.
Tonya Reiner, longtime ESA parent with two students with disabilities and leader with the Arizona Coalition of Parents for Equal Student Access, said she fears the impact universal spending could have.
“I worry that the administration will continue to favor ESA students who attend private schools and fund them over students with disabilities,” Reiner said. “What happens when there’s not enough money for everyone? Will the students with special needs suffer even more under current ESA leadership?”
Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, said school choice special interest groups are funneling in a swell of money to advertise the program and boost universal enrollment.
“The intent is the full-scale privatization of education and Arizona is the tip of the spear,” Lewis said. “And if a Democratic governor decides not to fight against that and to allow the privatization of public education on her watch, then we know where her priorities lie.”
Save Our Schools, Arizona Educators United, AZ Alliance of Black School Educators, Civic Engagement Beyond Voting, Equality AZ among other organizations are convening in a press conference Wednesday to rally in support of a cap.
Other agencies are also feeling the strain placed by the universal ESA expansion.
Attorney General Kris Mayes wrote to the governor over the weekend to express “alarm” that the AG’s office would not be receiving any new allotments from the general fund in a new budget “due to the catastrophic drain on state resources caused by universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.”
Mayes sent her budget requests to Hobbs over the weekend and warned the lack of new funding could push the office to the “edge of a steep cliff.”
The proposed budget bills are set to go in front of the House and Senate Appropriation Committees Wednesday.