Gov. Katie Hobbs is citing new cost estimates for universal vouchers in her latest bid to convince lawmakers to scale back the new program.
Hobbs said Tuesday the total cost of all vouchers may hit $943.8 million in the school year that just started. That is about $319 million more than the budget lawmakers approved, a budget she signed.
But the governor said none of this should be a surprise.
She said it has been clear that the state pays out up to $800 more for a voucher for a student without special needs, than it provides in state aid for a student in a public school.
But that’s just part of the problem.
The 2022 law allows parents, who already were using their own funds to send their children to private schools or teach their children at home, to now get vouchers of taxpayer dollars. And that, Hobbs said, is an average new net cost of $7,223 per student — with perhaps more than 40,000 shifting the cost of their private education to the state.
Hobbs’ figures are getting a fight from House Speaker Ben Toma. The Peoria Republican has been a chief proponent of allowing all parents to get state dollars for private and parochial schools.
He is sticking with an estimate that only about 68,000 students will be getting vouchers this year, a figure that would put the price tag at about $624 million.
By contrast, Hobbs estimates total voucher enrollment with top 97,000, which is where she got the $943.8 million estimate.
But the governor’s figures are more in line with that of state schools chief Tom Horne.
He estimated four weeks ago that there will be about 100,000 students who will get vouchers, formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts.” And Horne put the cost of that at $900 million.
Hobbs had no role in creating universal vouchers, having inherited the expanded program when she took office in January.
A call by the governor in her State of the State speech in January to repeal the expansion was ignored. Efforts to cap year-over-year increases in enrollment fared no better.
Now Hobbs is using the new estimates in a bid to pressure lawmakers to make changes, like requiring students to attend public schools before getting a voucher.
Toma, for his part, called the governor’s figures “baseless.” Beyond that, he said that the focus should not be on the costs but the policy.
“It’s clear the ESA program is popular with Arizona families and continues to experience growth, a serious frustration for those who oppose school choice,” Toma said in a prepared response. “House Republicans support funding each student according to their need, whether they use their funding at a district, charter or an ESA.”
Toma also maintains that the vouchers are a relative bargain.
He said the typical voucher for a student without special needs is about $7,200 a year. By contrast, Toma said the average school district gets more than $13,000 a year per pupil from all sources.
That latter figure, while accurate, is misleading. At the very least, it takes into account not only federal aid but also locally collected taxes.
Looking only at state funds, the Arizona Association of School Business Officials did its own computations. It concluded that a voucher for an elementary school student costs state taxpayers $425 more a year; for high schoolers the figure is $543.
Then there’s that entirely new cost to the state of students who already were in private schools at their parents’ expense or being home schooled and not costing taxpayers anything — until now.
Toma, in a separate interview with Capitol Media Services, said that does not concern him.
“Those parents were still paying taxes,” he said. “And those grandparents were still paying taxes.”
And he took a slap at Hobbs and Democrats, who have argued for years for more dollars for education funding, for now complaining about the expenditure.
“Isn’t it ironic that now, all of a sudden, they seem to have an issue with additional money to K-12 just because it’s not going to the K-12 bucket that they happen to like or prefer,” Toma said.
The rapid growth has occurred because, until last year, vouchers were available only to students who met certain conditions. These include having special needs, being foster children, residents of tribal reservations or attending schools rated D or F.
Total enrollment was just shy of 12,000 — far short of any of the current projections.
All those preconditions are now gone, making any of the 1.1 million students in K-12 schools eligible.
In making his own $900 million estimate of voucher costs, Horne sidestepped the question of whether there is enough money in the $17.8 billion budget to support the increase in the number of private school students who now are expected to rely on state funds for their education.
“Right now, we’re relying on basic state aid,” he said, based on the premise that these youngsters actually were going to public schools until now. “If we conclude that more is needed, we will have to deal with that at the time.”
At least part of the reason there has been a big influx of applications for vouchers is due to Horne himself.
State lawmakers agreed to set aside $10 million to administer the voucher program. But Horne acknowledged he has been using some of that to advertise the universal vouchers.