Arizona governor’s plan to undo nation’s largest school choice program will harm students, advocates say

(Daily Caller) – Newly-elected Democratic Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs’ plan to undo the nation’s most expansive school choice program could affect thousands of students and families who are already utilizing the state’s voucher program, school choice advocates told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Hobbs’ executive budget released Jan. 13 asked state legislators to reverse the state’s expansion of its school choice program which currently allows all Arizona students in grades K-12 to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers if they choose to leave or are already outside of the public education system. The proposal would have a severe negative impact on Arizona families already utilizing the school voucher program to pursue other educational opportunities, school choice advocates told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“It’s an assault on the families and the parents,” Steve Smith, Arizona State Director of American Federation for Children (AFC), a group working toward school choice, told the DCNF. “Especially now when education options are needed more than ever in the wake of COVID-19. You must let these these families flourish. These programs have been a lifesaver to so many and to take that away or even threaten to take it away, it’s just flat out wrong.”

In July, former Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law creating the largest school voucher program in the country, making more than 1.1 million Arizona students in public and charter schools eligible to receive up to $7,000 in order to transfer schools. Under the previous program, disabled children, students living on American Indian reservations and students attending low-performing public schools were eligible for the taxpayer-funded vouchers.

As of Jan 9., more than 45,000 students have enrolled in the state’s school choice program, according to to Faith Prep Arizona, a group that advises families using the school choice program. Originally just one-third of Arizona students were eligible for the program, with about 11,800 students enrolled, according to the AZ Mirror.

Through the program, students can receive up to $7,000, enough to potentially cover a private school education, according to AZ Free News. Upon the opening of the program application, the state’s Department of Education reported that due to a “high volume” of applications, users may receive an error message when applying.

Reversing the school choice program could affect thousands across the state who are already utilizing the voucher program, Amy Carney, Scottsdale Unified governing board member and deputy director of Building Education for Students Together, a group focused on parental rights in education, told the DCNF.

“It’s unfortunate that Governor Hobbs is so ideologically blinded that she doesn’t understand or care why over 45,000 children are already benefiting from Arizona’s newly expanded Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program,” Carney told the DCNF. “Instead of threatening to tear apart a program helping children across our state, our governor should try to listen and learn why this is needed and use the information to strengthen our local public schools to better serve the children in our local communities.”

Save Our Schools Arizona, an organization that advocates for public schools, tried to halt Ducey’s expansion of the program in September but failed to collect enough signatures to place the issue on the general election ballot. The state’s current school choice program is estimated to cost Arizona tax-payers more than $140 million in the 2024 fiscal year, according to Hobbs’ executive budget.

“Universal ESA vouchers threaten to bankrupt our state and our local public schools, with unbudgeted costs set to reach nearly $400 million in the next year,” Save Our Schools Arizona said in a statement. “By prioritizing public education funding over wasteful and unaccountable private school vouchers, Governor Hobbs fulfills her Constitutional obligation to properly fund Arizona’s public schools.”

Hobbs’ plan threatens families who used the vouchers to choose other education options amid reports of record learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith told the DCNF.

“I think the larger attack is frankly on the psyche of the Arizona families who are using this and they are now thinking today ‘what if?’,” Smith told the DCNF. “‘What if she does something drastic or crazy or gets her wish and eliminates this? What’s next for me and my kid?’ Especially in the wake of the learning loss of COVID-19 when kids need as many education resources as possible to now just get caught up and get to grade level. Why on earth would a sitting governor ultimately nakedly attack them when they need this education the most?”

Save Our Schools Arizona and Hobbs’ office did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.