ESAs go over enrollment numbers, raising concerns and praise

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(The Center Square) – Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs raised concern about how Empowership Scholarship Account enrollment numbers went above the expected figure, sparking both criticism and praise from education stakeholders statewide.

There are 68,455 students taking part in the program, which is 75 students more than the projected 68,380, according to the Arizona Department of Education website. Hobbs said that the “runaway spending” is putting other aspects of the state budget at risk, including public safety and social work funds.

“The school voucher program is unaccountable and unsustainable. It does not save taxpayers money, and it does not provide a better education for Arizona students. Instead, taxpayer dollars are funding ski resort passes, luxury car driving lessons, and pianos because partisan politicians refuse to place real limits on the program,” the governor said in a statement Monday.

In terms of the types of purchases cited by Hobbs, she is referencing an ABC15 Arizona report that dove into some approved ESA expenses.

While the governor’s office warns about the program taking away from other aspects of the state budget, the ADOE says the administration’s math is wrong.

“The Governor’s calculation is in error. She is counting the $7,200 paid for each ESA student without offsetting the $13,000 paid per student that would otherwise be spent for that student to attend a public school. The overall numbers bear this out as the expenditures for all public school spending, including the ESA program are $72 million below budget,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said in a statement Wednesday.

Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, told The Center Square in a statement that she agrees with the governor’s assessment of the situation that the program could cause financial woes for the state on a macro level.

“Arizona is not projected to have any surplus to cover these massive unbudgeted costs: we need an immediate plan to resolve this overspending,” she said. “We support Governor Hobbs’s push to rein in and bring real accountability to Arizona’s universal ESA voucher program.”

Love Your School founder and CEO Jenny Clark, who is a proponent of ESAs, suggests that Hobbs is misleading the public by saying that the program is hurting other areas state’s current budget.

“If every single family on an ESA moved back to public school, I doubt we would hear Governor Hobbs complain that it’s impacting the budget,” Clark told The Center Square in an email.

As for a response from legislative Republicans, state House Speaker Ben Toma said in a statement that the lawmakers at the Capitol have “yet to see any policy proposals from her office.”

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