Hobbs Reveals Proposed Changes to Arizona’s School Voucher Program

Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs has unveiled a plan to reform the state’s private school voucher program. The proposal seeks to enhance oversight and eligibility criteria for the program, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are allocated towards student education rather than unaccountable schools and luxury spending. Governor Hobbs aims to set basic standards that receiving schools must meet to ensure student safety and quality education.

The Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program in Arizona, which enables students to receive grants irrespective of their public school history, has experienced significant growth in enrollment rates and costs. The program, initially designed to assist students attending failing schools or with special education needs, is currently projected to cost the state nearly $1 billion in the upcoming fiscal year and contributes to the state’s budget shortfall.

While Governor Hobbs previously sought to repeal the universal portion of the program, Republican lawmakers opposed the proposal. Her current plan focuses on addressing accountability issues within the program by introducing safety and educational standards for private schools accepting voucher money. This would include background checks for teachers, accommodation for students with disabilities, and monitoring of expenditures by the state auditor general.

To prevent luxury expenses, Governor Hobbs’ plan also introduces a requirement for review and manual approval of purchases exceeding $500, ensuring they contribute to academic purposes. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne stated that his office already reviews expense requests, rejecting thousands of applications due to inadequate documentation.

In addition, the plan aims to prevent price gouging by limiting tuition increases for schools receiving ESA money and mandates tracking of absenteeism and graduation rates. It also seeks to inform parents of their rights and student rights when transitioning from the public school system.

While Governor Hobbs does not call for a full repeal of the universal portion of the ESA program, her plan stipulates that voucher recipients must have attended a public school for at least 100 days to become eligible. Initially, 75% of new applicants for the universal portion had no prior public school history, which reduced to approximately 50% by June 2023.

Democratic lawmakers applaud Governor Hobbs’ plan, emphasizing its accountability, transparency, and fiscal responsibility. However, Republican legislators, who hold the majority, express opposition to the proposed reforms, defending the popularity and benefits of the ESA program for parents and students.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Bennett is open to addressing student safety and supporting students with disabilities but opposes adding further obstacles to school choice. He looks forward to working with colleagues to promote transparency and accountability without discouraging parental participation in ESA programs.

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