Arizona’s New Democratic Governor Seeks To Roll Back Nation’s Most Ambitious School Choice Program

Governor Hobbs is seeking to unravel a program that her predecessor, Doug Ducey, described as his proudest achievement while in office.

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

Arizona’s newly elected governor is looking to overturn one of the Grand Canyon State’s most innovative policies, the universal Empowerment Savings Account — America’s first universal education savings account program.

In her recently released executive budget, Governor Hobbs is calling on state legislators to repeal the program’s 2022 expansion which made it universally available and return the program to its pre-2022 status. 

The program gives Arizona families whose children do not attend public schools $6,000 of taxpayer dollars per child to fund educational expenses of their choosing. The sum is roughly equivalent to per-child spending in Arizona public schools.

The funds are disbursed via a savings account in which funds can roll over from year to year, which proponents see as an advantage by incentivizing economization in education spending.

In 2022, the state removed a longstanding cap on the number of students enrolled in the program — making it universally available to all Arizona families. More than 45,000 students are enrolled in the program as of January 9.

One Arizona school choice proponent, Jason Bedrick, said Ms. Hobbs is “declaring war on Arizona families” by seeking to eliminate the program’s universal availability. 

Supporters of education savings accounts believe that taxpayer dollars should follow “students not systems,” funding every child’s education rather than just those enrolled in public schools.

Meanwhile, a public school advocacy group with ties to teachers unions, Save Our Schools, praised Ms. Hobbs for defunding the ESAs, which the group says “threaten to bankrupt our state and our local public schools.”

If Ms. Hobbs gets her way, the ESA will be limited to students in specific qualifying circumstances — for example, students diagnosed with disabilities, students residing on Indian reservations, students with parents in active duty military service, and a few other select scenarios. 

Ms. Hobbs’ office estimates the ESA program, if it remains universal, will cost the state more than $140 million in the 2024 fiscal year — which she is seeking to eliminate from the budget.

The same budget proposal adds more than $270 million in new funding to public schools, whose total spending will total over $9 billion.

Currently, Arizona has a budget surplus of about $5 billion.

Ms. Hobbs’s proposed budget, just released two days ago, is already being met with opposition from the legislators with whom she’ll need to work to get it passed.

The speaker of Arizona’s state house, Ben Toma, tweeted Friday that Ms. Hobbs’s budget would be “dead on arrival” in the Republican-held legislature. 

Arizona Republicans see the ESA expansion as one of their biggest victories in the last legislative session, and the outgoing governor, Douglas Ducey, touted it as his proudest achievement in a radio interview in November.

“We’re the gold standard for educational freedom,” Mr. Ducey said then — and he’s not alone in his assessment.

While Ms. Hobbs seeks to end the program, Arizona’s universal ESA program is being held up as a model for state school choice policy across the country.

Governor Reynolds of Iowa just announced a plan for an education savings account in her state that would become universal over the course of three years.

Lawmakers in Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Texas have vowed to voters that they will prioritize the passage of similar ESA programs as well.

The New York Sun

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