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Arizona public school advocates demand budget solution for school voucher program

On Monday, Save Our Schools Arizona delivered a memo to the state’s legislative leadership, governor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.

The group is demanding a plan to deal with what it calls "massive overspending" on school vouchers.

Save Our Schools advocates for public schools in the state and has been strongly opposed to the universal expansion of the school voucher program.

Also known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, known as ESAs, those vouchers allow families to use public funds to pay for a student’s private or alternative education.

Save Our Schools communications manager Tyler Kowch said by the end of this school year (and fiscal year), the voucher program is on track to cost Arizona $296.6 million more than the Legislature budgeted, meaning the program will be 47.5% over budget. 

“There are no surplus funds left to cover these unbudgeted costs," Kowch said. "So we need an immediate plan to resolve the overspending and to reign in the program that also has zero accountability, zero oversight and zero transparency.”

As of this week,  67,935 students are enrolled in the program and Save Our Schools says that puts it $22,945,005 in the red. According to the ADE’s Q4 2023 ESA Voucher Report, students get an average amount of $9,523. In a press release Monday, Save Our Schools wrote: "At the current rate of growth, an additional 737 students are approved to use vouchers each week – the majority of whom are current private school and homeschool students who could previously afford this option and whose education was never before subsidized by public monies."

Kowch said in addition to the budget issue, the program still lacks transparency.

"Any way that we can bring child safety to the program, academic accountability, financial transparency to how dollars are being spent, we just want all of that to be dealt with," he said.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne responded in a written statement to KJZZ News on Tuesday morning: 

"Their numbers are based on total cost of ESAs without offset for saving $13,000 per student which we would spend in public schools. That is now 50% of total ESAs. Their total number is way off. ESAs give people at all economic levels the ability to find the best school for their child that rich people have always had."

Senior field correspondent Bridget Dowd has a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.