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Arizona's school voucher program escapes budget negotiations largely unscathed

March in support of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program at the Arizona Capitol
Emily Mai/Cronkite News
Tajiri Freedom, the principal of New Gains Academy, marches around the Arizona State Capitol building in support of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program in Phoenix. on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.

A fight over the future of Arizona’s school voucher program amid budget negotiations foreshadowed the stakes of elections this fall, when Republicans and Democrats will battle for control of the state Legislature.

The budget deal struck over the weekend includes broad, across-the-board cuts to address a projected $1.4-billion deficit over the next two years.

But the school voucher program — which has undergone significant growth since Republicans expanded it to cover all Arizona students in 2022 — came out of budget negotiations largely unscathed, even though some analysts and critics said it is largely to blame for that deficit.

In January, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs' office estimated that nearly 50,000 students receiving voucher money had never attended a public school before, meaning they amounted to a new cost to the state.

More recently, the Grand Canyon Institute estimated the program is responsible for $761 million in added costs over the next two years, over half of that projected deficit.

Republicans and voucher supporters have criticized that analysis, and argue the program gives families the freedom to choose the right school for their children.

Hobbs extracted some concessions from Republicans during budget negotiations, including a change that will shave around $2.5 million in voucher costs. The budget also requires the Department of Education to create a list of acceptable voucher expenses and fingerprinting for teachers at private schools receiving voucher money.

But that budget received a lukewarm response from Hobbs’ fellow Democrats at the legislature, with 14 of 29 House Democrats and 8 of 14 Senate Democrats voting against the education funding bill.

House Assistant Minority Leader Oscar De Los Santos (D-Laveen) said the relatively minor changes to the voucher program, also called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, will have little impact.

And he blamed ballooning voucher costs for forcing other education cuts, including the elimination of additional funding for schools that serve students living in poverty.

“In order to pay for ESAs, we’re cutting money for low-income students, and I think that’s wrong,” De Los Santos said. “I think that it’s like a slap in the face.”

But Democrats weren’t the only ones upset by the changes to the ESA program. Several Republicans also voted against the education funding bill.

But, unlike De Los Santos, Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale) said the changes go too far.

Before voting no, Chaplik said Republicans did not do enough to protect the voucher program.

He said the new guardrails — as well as an agreement to cap tax deductible donations used to fund private school tuition for qualified students — threaten to undermine Republican efforts to expand school choice in Arizona.

“I just feel like this is letting the camel’s nose under the tent, where I think we could further expose ESAs in the future, which I won’t stand for,” Chaplik said.

As for public schools funding, Chaplik said it’s the public education system that is rife with wasteful spending.

“I really think K-12 spending on public dollars is where we need to be doing the investigations,” Chaplik said. “That’s where we need to be looking (at) where the fraud and the waste is, not ESAs.”

The results of the November legislative elections will determine what the future of the ESA program looks like.

And Democrats have made overhauling the expanded voucher program a key campaign talking point.

“If you think that educators deserve a raise, if you think that we should be funding more nurses and counselors in schools, the only way we’re going to get that is if we flip the legislature, so the stakes couldn’t be higher” De Los Santos said.

He said they would pay for those proposals by scaling back the ESA program.

But Republicans, who currently hold a one-vote majority in both the Arizona House and Senate, have resisted calls by Hobbs and Democrats to further restrict the program by adding additional enrollment conditions that the governor’s office says could cut enrollment to around 49,500 and save $244 million next year.

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.