School choice advocates are fact checking Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who called the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) “unsustainable.”
“The newest voucher cost projections show us what we already knew: this program is unsustainable and does not save taxpayers money,” the governor claimed on Twitter. “We must bring transparency and accountability to this program to ensure school vouchers don’t bankrupt our state.”
A few days before, Hobbs’ office sent a memo to Lisette Flores, House Democratic Caucus chief of staff, and Paulino Valerio, Senate Democratic Caucus chief of staff, with more specific claims.
School choice advocates and policy experts were quick to challenge the governor’s claims, including Matt Beienburg of the Goldwater Institute and Jenny Clark of Love Your Schools, both Arizona-based organizations.
“The left wants to pretend that educating ESA students is prohibitively costly, but in reality their objection has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with wanting influence and control over those students and their schools,” Beienburg, the director of education policy at Goldwater, told The Lion.
Hobbs claims the ESA program may cost taxpayers over $900 million annually, supposedly causing a nearly $320 million General Fund shortfall for fiscal year 2024.
“The first thing that is laughable about this is that the governor’s office is using a report that they don’t even believe in, and that’s a report that said what the estimated numbers of families on ESAs were going to be, projecting it between 90,000-100,000,” Clark said on her organization’s Instagram.
Hobbs’ office previously said the report “falsely assert[ed] the numbers,” Clark said.
“The bigger issue is that we all know right now the ESA program stands at about 60,000 actual students, so we’re already 30,000 short from the numbers that the governor’s office is using to try to scare Arizonans,” she added.
Beienburg also said Hobbs’ office “mistakes the cost [of] ESA awards by thousands of dollars per student.”
Hobbs’ office estimates around 30,000 more students will join the program, at an additional cost of $319 million, which is around $10,967 per student. Yet, Beienburg says, ESAs in the state are only $7,000, which is “nearly $4,000” less per student than Gov. Hobbs’ office suggests.”
Beienburg also argues against the office’s claim on how ESA spending “could account for 53.25% of all new K-12 education spending in the FY 2024 budget going towards only 8% of Arizona students.”
“Even under the Arizona Department of Education’s (ADE) highest projections, the ESA program would be funding the education of roughly 8% of Arizona students (including a disproportionately high percentage of students with severe disabilities) for less than 6% of the total taxpayer cost of educating Arizona’s students,” he said.
Hobbs’ office also claimed costs in Arizona increase when a student leaves a public school and enrolls in the ESA program, due to the program awarding an amount “based on the state funding provided to charter school students.”
Beienburg maintains it is true that ESAs are “partially tied to the funding level of charter school students,” but ESA students don’t receive any other funding that normally goes to district and charter schools outside of the student funding formula.
“Every single student attending a traditional public school receives more in funding from state and local taxpayers than that student would receive on the ESA program,” Beienburg said.
“The data makes it very clear that public district schools continue to overwhelmingly drive the costs and increases in Arizona education spending, even as parents turn away from them in favor of charter schools and the ESA program,” Beienburg told The Lion.