Is school choice bankrupting Arizona? That’s what Gov. Katie Hobbs and Democratic legislative leaders would have you believe, but simple math says otherwise.
Arizona’s choice program, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), “in its current form is not sustainable,” Ms. Hobbs tweeted last week. “We need to bring an end to this out of control and unaccountable spending, and I will work tirelessly to make that happen.”
With an ESA, parents can use a portion of their child’s state education funds—typically about $8,000 a year—to pay for private-school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, home-school curricula, special-needs therapy and other expenses.
Ms. Hobbs’s declaration came in the wake of the Arizona Department of Education’s latest projection that the program, which has about 58,000 participants, will serve 100,000 students by the end of fiscal 2024 at a cost of roughly $900 million.
“Without reform, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will bankrupt our state & our public schools,” tweeted Rep. Andrés Cano, leader of the Democratic caucus in the Arizona House. He omitted the portion of the department’s letter noting that “many of the students that are enrolling now are coming from the public school system, which in the end saves the state money.”
That $900 million is barely 2% of total Arizona state spending of $80.5 billion in 2022. Arizona public schools spend about $14,000 per pupil, or $1.4 billion for 100,000 students. If the department’s enrollment projection is reached, school choice would serve roughly 8% of Arizona’s students for 6% of the $15 billion that Arizona will spend on public schools.
A new report by the Common Sense Institute finds that “current enrollment in Arizona public district and charter schools combined is over 80,000 students below pre-pandemic projections,” producing a savings of $639 million. Arizona’s population is growing, so the vast majority of those students left for private or home schools, for which they could avail themselves of Arizona’s two private choice policies. In addition to the 58,000 students using education savings accounts, last year school tuition organizations issued more than 32,000 tax-credit scholarships.
The attacks on school choice are more than a public relations campaign. When Ms. Hobbs’s budget retained last year’s school-choice expansion, Arizona’s Attorney General Kris Mayes used the “bankrupt the state” talking point as a pretext to threaten a lawsuit. In a public letter to Ms. Hobbs and the Legislature, Ms. Mayes decried the “catastrophic drain on state resources caused by universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.” She later went on television and threatened to investigate participating families for “waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Ms. Hobbs lacks the legislative support to roll back school choice, as Republicans have slim majorities. But she’s signaling what she would do if she could. Arizona families should take note.
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on June 4, 2023