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Hobbs sets off war of words over Arizona ESA program

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(The Center Square) – Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs criticized the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program on Tuesday, following a memo released outlining its estimated cost in fiscal year 2024.

According to the memo from the governor’s office, the program will create a $320 million shortfall in the general fund due to its cost estimate of $944 million.

“The universal school voucher program is unsustainable. Unaccountable school vouchers do not save taxpayer money, and they do not provide a better education for Arizona students,” Hobbs said in a statement. “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.”

The program was signed into law by former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey last year. It was the first program in the nation to allow any family, regardless of financial circumstances, to use their share of public education for charter or private school costs or other education-related expenses.

The program has proven popular, with more than 60,000 students participating. Even at nearly $1 billion, the program costs a small fraction of Arizona’s public school budget of $8.5 billion. Federal, state and local spending on public schools amounts to more than $14 billion.

In the memo, the governor’s office accuses the Arizona Department of Education of not providing enough information about the program. Some estimates suggested it would save taxpayers money because the cost of educating a child in a public school district was less than the student would take with them in the form of an ESA. Critics say most ESA participants have never been to a public school; thus ESAs act as a private school subsidy.

“The Arizona Department of Education submitted a report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) on May 30th outlining our estimates for the number of students that will participate in the ESA program by the end of the 2024 Fiscal Year. 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,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said in a statement. “This contradicts the contention that ADE was anything less than transparent in this process.”

“The projections we released are, ironically, almost exactly the same as those in the governor’s memo. 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,” he added.

This reaction comes after Christine Accurso stepped down as director of the ESA program on Monday, and the department’s auditor John Ward is now taking over.

On Monday, Mayes warned about scam artists taking advantage of families using ESA funds, which was met with criticism from Horne and other Republicans.

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