Arizona, a Vanguard of School Choice, Faces Crackdown From Its Democratic Governor

Thousands of parents are preparing to fight back against what they say is a ‘clear and direct attack’ from Governor Hobbs.

AP/Ross D. Franklin
Arizona's Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, gives the state of the state address at the Arizona capitol. AP/Ross D. Franklin

Parents say they “are not going to sit idly by” as Arizona’s Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, aims to crack down on education savings accounts in a state known as a national trailblazer of school reform and choice. 

Ms. Hobbs’s proposal, which she plans to introduce in the legislative session that begins on Monday, is the latest in a charge she has led against school choice reform since taking office last year. As supporters argue the proposals are necessary safeguards, opponents say it is a threat to the state’s universal Empowerment Savings Account, which was the first of its kind nationally and was touted by Ms. Hobbs’s predecessor, Doug Ducey, as his proudest accomplishment while in office. 

The program, which provides roughly $7,200 to families for every student annually, is immensely popular and is expected to expand to 100,000 enrollees by this summer. Ms. Hobbs’s plan would regulate private schools receiving ESA funds to be more similar to public schools, as well as mandate that students who receive vouchers attend a public school for 100 days before being eligible.

“Governor Hobbs’s proposal is a clear and direct attack on ESA families and the entire empowerment scholarship account program, and we are not going to sit idly by while she attempts to dismantle the ESA program in Arizona,” an Arizona native and mother of five, Jenny Clark, told the Sun. 

Mrs. Clark, who founded a parent-led group, Love Your School, said she has heard “from thousands of families that are completely distraught about what this means and how it could impact their children.” 

Ms. Hobbs’s proposed 100-day public school attendance requirement means students “would lose their spots in private school,” Mrs. Clark added. “It would take a drastic toll on startups, and different entrepreneurs who have launched new private schools or hybrid schools or co-ops to lose those students mid-year, it would be literally nothing short of a tragedy for ESA kids.” 

School choice is shaping up to be a central focus for Republican candidates ahead of the 2024 election, as polling of registered voters indicates 71 percent — an overwhelming majority — support it. Ms. Hobbs’s new proposal is scaled back from her original calls for overturning the state’s ESA program altogether. 

“Governor Hobbs’s proposal is a clear and direct attack on ESA families and the entire empowerment scholarship account program, and we are not going to sit idly by while she attempts to dismantle the ESA program in Arizona,” Mrs. Clark said, adding that school choice advocates on the ground, including Love Your School and its network of 8,500 parents, are “mobilizing” to share their stories and meet with legislators. 

“The governor’s proposal will drastically impact special-needs families and low-income families by forcing current ESA families to go back to public school for 100 days of attendance,” she said. “It’s an attempt to turn private schools into public schools with hyper-regulation.” 

In addition to the attendance requirement, Ms. Hobbs’s proposal would give the auditor general more monitoring authority, add education requirements for private schools, and require the state’s Department of Education to “disclose the parental and student rights that are relinquished when leaving the public school system for the ESA voucher program.”

The plans to crack down on the program show how some elected officials “believe they know better than parents what our children need,” Mrs. Clark told the Sun. “Coming at this time, when so many kids are negatively impacted by Covid learning loss and other emotional challenges, to say that we’re going to remove any type of opportunity that they have to get ahead in their education is unconscionable.”

Representatives of Ms. Hobbs’s press office did not return a request from the Sun for comment. The plan, she said in a public statement, “will increase student safety, promote financial accountability, and hold private schools receiving taxpayer dollars to similar standards as public schools.”


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