ARIZONA, USA — The cost of Arizona's eight-month-old universal school voucher program is projected to hit $900 million over the next year, far beyond the money budgeted for the program just three weeks ago, according to a report by the Arizona Department of Education.
The spending would be fueled by a surge in students, from the current 59,000 to an estimated 97,000 by July 2024, according to the report.
But the Legislature's independent budget watchdog, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, almost immediately cast doubt on the Education Department's projections.
The enrollment projections were "highly speculative" and the methodology isn't provided, JLBC analyst Patrick Moran said in a report released late Wednesday.
"Any ﬁscal implications will be clearer later this fall," he wrote.
Under state law, the Department of Education must submit the forward-looking report to the JLBC by May 30.
The potential $400 million gap between state funding and actual spending is renewing demands by ESA opponents for a cap on enrollment. The projected shortfall also raises the possibility that the Legislature will need to shore up the program's spending.
The program doesn't have a fixed budget. Funding is based on the most recent growth projections.
"Right now we're relying on basic state aid," said Republican School Superintendent Tom Horne told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
"If we conclude that more is needed, we'll have to deal with that at the time."
Last year, the state Legislature approved the nation's first school voucher program that offers private school tuition or payments for homeschooling to every student. Each student gets at least $7,000 from the state. Families with children who have special needs receive larger grants.
Democratic State Rep. Judy Schwiebert, a career educator and member of the House Education Committee, said the Legislature has to put a cap on voucher spending.
"I support school choice," Schwiebert said in an interview. "But this is irresponsible. This universal voucher expansion is going to bankrupt our state."
Democrats in the Legislature pushed for a cap on spending during the recent budget negotiations but were rebuffed.
First-term Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs had called for a repeal of the universal voucher program in her proposed executive budget earlier this year, but never made it a priority.
Horne disclosed that his department is helping recruit students for private schools by spending taxpayer dollars to market vouchers.
When questioned by reporters, Horne refused to say how much he was spending.
"We're not prepared to. I'm just not prepared to answer at this time," Horne said.
He said the department's ads were targeting "lower economic groups."
"We've been advertising heavily on Spanish-language media," Horne said.
"The problem that we've had is that the people at the top of the economic ladder knew right off the bat that ESAs were available," Horne said. "People in lower economic areas did not know that. And so we're solving that by letting them know."
Horne said the advertising had helped convert more public school students to ESAs.
He said the number of ESA students who had never attended public school has dropped from 8 of out 10 among the first large group of universal voucher recipients to 5 out of 10 among newer recipients.
The Florida-based American Federation for Children, a longtime advocate for voucher expansion in Arizona, has a texting campaign to promote ESAs.
The JLBC report refutes a point made by supporters of ESAs: that vouchers are a net money-saver for the state. Savings for public and charter schools "would mostly oﬀset the cost" of a student's ESA award, the report says.
"It was absolutely ... shocking to hear Superintendent Horne talk about using state-funded dollars to advertise this program that is defunding our local public schools," said Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona and a critic of the voucher expansion.
"Horne is supposed to be the superintendent of public instruction. Yet he spends most of his time marketing for ESA vouchers and private schools."
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