Gov. Katie Hobbs says she’s cancelling a $50 million contract that would have paid for students to attend all-day kindergarten at non-public schools using Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or school vouchers.
In a news release on May 24, the governor said that the grant amounted to a misuse of federal Covid funds and would have covered all-day kindergarten costs for ESA students, while regular public school students only get half-day kindergarten paid for by the state. The deal was signed by former Gov. Doug Ducey.
“Illegally giving $50 million to private schools while failing to properly invest in public education is just one example of the previous administration’s disregard for public school students,” Hobbs said in a statement, calling the grant “illegal and invalid.”
The cash would have been routed through the state Treasurer’s Office – a spokeswoman for the treasurer didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment. At present, the ESA program covers half-day kindergarten.
In her announcement, Hobbs didn’t say what she’ll use the money for instead, but on Twitter wrote that “we’re going to put that money to good use.”
Tom Horne, the Arizona superintendent of public instruction and a Republican, said the cancellation would just hurt students.
“With all-day kindergarten, students learn to read in kindergarten and that (gives) them a head start in first grade. To eliminate funding for all-day kindergarten will reduce the academic performance of Arizona students which is the precise opposite of what government should be doing,” he said in a statement provided by a spokesman.
It’s not the first time Hobbs has cancelled deals signed by Ducey to disburse Covid money.
In February, she announced plans to cancel 19 separate contracts to distribute federal Covid funding worth more than $200 million, saying they’d been signed without the necessary competitive bidding process. An attorney for Hobbs used similar language to describe those deals at the time, calling them “invalid” and “illegal.”
In the latest statement, the Governor’s Office indicated that the ESA kindergarten contract was also signed near the end of Ducey’s term in office.
In many areas, Hobbs has governed as a centrist and continued some of Ducey’s policies, including immigration programs like bussing migrants out of state. But she has also taken jabs at Ducey from time to time.
Last week, at a press conference announcing action against wide-ranging health care scams targeting Native Americans, Hobbs said Ducey’s administration had only looked at the problem “on a case-by-case basis, never implementing the systemic overhauls necessary to weed out this problem and failing (to) deliver true accountability.”
Daniel Scarpinato, a former chief of staff to Ducey, said cancelling the kindergarten funding is an attempt to get attention.
“Everyone knows what this is about. Katie Hobbs is kowtowing to her far-left base because other statewide Democrats are getting way more publicity than her,” he said in a text message.
(In February, he denied any impropriety in how the Covid contracts were awarded.)
The May 24 announcement is also part of a larger fight over Arizona’s universal ESA system.
The first-in-the-nation program allows any family sending their children to non-public schools to get a chunk of state money to fund their education. Republican lawmakers approved the program in 2022 over fierce opposition from Democrats.
Since the universal ESA expansion, student enrollment in the program has ballooned, reaching roughly 50,000 by this March, up from 12,000 last summer. Of those 50,000, approximately 34,000 would not have been eligible for ESAs before the universal expansion.
Critics of the program say it drains state coffers at the expense of public schools. Hobbs has said ESAs will eventually “bankrupt” the state and, in an executive budget proposal earlier this year, said she wants to cut funding for the universal program out of the budget.
Ultimately, the budget that Hobbs negotiated with Republican lawmakers left ESA money in the state budget, something that left many Democrats angry at the governor.
“I’m disappointed that the Arizona budget does not place a cap — even temporarily — on Arizona’s voucher expansion,” Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said on Twitter after the budget package was released publicly.
Educators have long pushed for the state to fund all-day kindergarten for all Arizona children. Former Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, launched a short-lived all-day kindergarten program, but lawmakers defunded the effort in 2010 as the state made budget cuts following the recession.
Horne, who was in his first term as school superintendent at the time Napolitano’s program launched, noted that he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers supported the idea back then.
Some public schools do offer full-day kindergarten programs, but they’re not required to under state law since kindergarten isn’t considered a “grade.”