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Hobbs announces plan to reform Arizona school voucher program

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, on Tuesday introduced a plan to rein in Arizona’s expanded school voucher program, but the proposal is likely to receive a cold reception in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Since the Empowerment Scholarship Account program was expanded by Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Doug Ducey in 2022 — making all Arizona students eligible for vouchers — the cost of the program has surpassed expectation. Hobbs’ office estimated in July that vouchers could cost the state nearly $1 billion this fiscal year.

Democrats have argued the state can’t afford the ballooning cost of the program as Arizona faces a $400 million budget deficit. 

Hobbs tried, but failed, to scale back universal expansion of vouchers in 2023. Now, many of Hobbs’ proposals aim to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately.

That includes requiring the Arizona Department of Education to manually approve all voucher purchases exceeding $500, and giving the Auditor General more oversight of private school spending.

“The ESA program lacks accountability and transparency,” Hobbs said in a press release. “With this plan, we can keep students safe, protect taxpayer dollars, and give parents and students the information they need to make an informed choice about their education.

Following reports that some Arizona private schools raised tuition by thousands of dollars following the expansion, Hobbs also wants to ban private schools that receive voucher money from increasing tuition at a rate higher than inflation.

The plan would also require that a student attended a public school for at least 100 days before they are eligible to receive voucher money.

Republican lawmakers have ardently opposed Democratic efforts to restrict the voucher since the 2022 expansion. 

Ben Toma at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s 2023 awards ceremony
Ben Toma at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s 2023 awards ceremony

“My colleagues and I support your right to school choice and will defend it,” House Speaker Ben Toma (R-Peoria) told parents at a committee hearing in November. “And don’t be discouraged by the detractors … follow the rules, ignore the noise.” 

But at least one of Hobbs’ proposals is already in place, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

Horne, a Republican, said the Department of Education already reviews all expenditures “regardless of amount.” 

“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,” Horne said in a statement. “We’ve also rejected more than 12,000 ESA purchase order requests.”

Hobbs also proposed several changes to the voucher system to impose accountability measures on private schools that mirror existing rules for public schools.

That includes requiring teachers at private schools that receive voucher dollars to pass a fingerprint background check and meet minimum education standards, and requiring the Department of Education to publish graduation and absenteeism rates for those schools.

Hobbs’ plan would also require all private schools to provide services to ESA students with disabilities in line with those students’ individualized learning or Section 504 plans.

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Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.