/ Modified jul 26, 2023 1:18 p.m.

Hobbs: "the universal school voucher program is unsustainable" as new cost projections come in

The projections come one day after two of the program's top officials resign.

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Arizona's universal school vouchers, the Empowerment Scholarship Account, are now estimated to cost the state nearly $950 million annually, leading to a potential $320 million shortfall, according to a new memo from the governor’s office.

“From day one, we understood the need to increase transparency and accountability of the new ESA universal voucher program, warning that the voucher program jeopardized not only the ability to adequately fund public school students, but also other vital state functions, like public safety, healthcare, and transportation infrastructure,” Will Gaona, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, wrote.

The report says more than half of the funding is newly incurred costs to the state due to new applicants who were already outside the public school system.

“Governor’s Office asserts that there is no cost savings from students leaving the public school,” the letter read. “The ESA program is unaccountable and overfunded.”

Projected costs of the program estimate that 53% of all new K-12 education spending in the fiscal year 2024 budget will only impact 8% of Arizona students. However, the joint legislative budget committee previously said the total impact of vouchers would only be known once there is more complete information on public school enrollment.

The memo also contends that the Arizona Department of Education has not been transparent about universal vouchers since “ADE has failed to respond to the Governor’s Office requests for additional information and background on their methodology and breakdown of current enrollment numbers.”

“The universal school voucher program is unsustainable,” Governor Katie Hobbs said in a Tuesday press release. “Unaccountable school vouchers do not save taxpayer money, and they do not provide a better education for Arizona students. We must bring transparency and accountability to this program to ensure school vouchers don’t bankrupt our state. I’m committed to reforming universal vouchers to protect taxpayer money and give all Arizona students the education they deserve.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne disputes the characterization of the ESA program

Horne says the department has shared methodology in regard to the May memo.

“On May 31st, John Ward and I held a news conference where all aspects of these estimates, including the methodology, were thoroughly discussed and scrutinized by members of the news media. This contradicts the contention that ADE was anything less than transparent in this process.”

He goes on to say that the estimates reflected in the governor’s memo are similar to ADE’s previous projections.

“There is a difference of only .008 percent between their numbers and ours. Questioning our methodology and our commitment to integrity in this process is unfair and unnecessary.

The news comes a day after two of the voucher program's top officials resigned. Both Linda Rizzo, the operations director, and Christine Accurso, the program’s executive director, spent less than a year in their roles.

Their departure comes as the program has grown to more than 60,500 students, larger than any public school district in the state.

In May, Accurso also reported the vouchers would cost roughly $900 million.

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