While states like Alabama and Kentucky are still working toward starting robust school choice programs, Arizona is working to keep the one it already has.
One of its greatest defenders is Tom Horne, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The state’s education savings account (ESA) program, which was established in 2011 and became universal in 2022, is wildly popular. Over 30,000 students participated in the previous school year.
However, freshman Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs despises the program and claims it will bankrupt the state.
“The school voucher program in its current form is not sustainable, and Republican legislators need to explain why they are forcing this runaway spending on Arizona taxpayers,” Hobbs said earlier this year. “We need to bring an end to this out of control and unaccountable spending, and I will work tireless to make that happen.”
But despite the governor’s fearmongering, Horne argues that ESAs will ultimately save money – and he has the support of independent analysis.
In fact, the maximum per-student scholarship value is only 90% of the state per-pupil funding, EdChoice reports. Public schools are funded by a combination of local, state, and federal funding.
“Arizona public schools receive over $11,300 in funding per student per year from state and local taxpayers alone … ESAs, on the other hand, offer typical awards of $7,000, meaning they cost thousands of dollars less,” explained Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute.
“Those savings go back to taxpayers (in the form of lower property taxes, etc.) and to the public school system (which also gets to keep a portion of the difference),” he concluded.
Horne explained it in simpler terms to local radio.
“There’ll be no more additional cost because if a student leaves public school for a private school, it’s a wash,” he said.
Arizona’s Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, has also tried to undermine the program by pointing out that private schools don’t have to follow all the same federal regulations regarding disabilities as public schools.
“If using ESA funds for private school or schooling at home is the preferred educational choice, families should make sure they choose reputable schools and vendors,” Mayes said in a statement. “Even still, families should know that when they accept an ESA, they lose protections from discrimination related to a child’s learning abilities, religion and sexual orientation.”
Horne merely responded by saying that special education students’ ESA funding would be the same as public school funding.
But he also hasn’t been shy about why school choice is so important.
“My job is to help improve our public schools and encourage excellence in our public schools,” Horne said in defense of school choice. “Even a good school doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of all the students. And if a student’s need is not being met, the parents should have the ability to find a school where the student’s needs will be met.”