Gov. Hobbs Introduces Legislation To End School Choice In 2032

January 31, 2024

By Corinne Murdock |

Gov. Katie Hobbs has introduced legislation that would end the entirety of Arizona’s school choice program come 2032.

On Monday, Hobbs announced the release of the bill, part of a forthcoming package, to bring to heel and then end the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. 

In the press release announcing the legislation, neither Hobbs nor Democratic leaders mentioned the provision ending the entire ESA Program: both the universal and special education components. The coalition characterized the legislation as containing accountability and transparency measures. 

As justification for the legislation, the governor repeated claims of misused ESA funding that have been debunked by Arizona Department of Education (ADE) officials.

“Arizonans deserve to know their taxpayer dollars are being spent giving Arizona children the education they deserve, not on luxury car driving lessons, ski trips, and water park passes,” said Hobbs. “We must bring accountability and transparency to the ESA program.”

The bill, SB1399, was introduced by Sen. Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein (D-LD12). Under the bill, the ESA Program would end on July 1, 2032 unless continued by an act of the legislature approved by the governor. 

The bill also would:

  • Require educators at ESA-funded schools to have a higher education; at least three years of teaching experience; and specialized skills, knowledge, or expertise related to the subject matter of instruction
  • Require fingerprinting and background checks for ESA-funded educators and tutors
  • Prohibit sales of items purchased using ESA funds
  • Require preapproval of transactions of $500 or more
  • Require the purchase of the least-expensive version of educational goods or services
  • Require ADE to disclose the legal rights waived by admission to the program
  • Require ADE to estimate the funds needed for the ESA program for the upcoming fiscal year
  • Implement additional performance and fiscal reporting requirements for ESA-funded schools
  • Require ESA-funded schools to adhere to outside individualized education programs or Section 504 plans
  • Establish annual audits of ESA-funded schools
  • Establish a legislative committee review of the ESA program to determine its economy and efficiency, achievements and shortcomings

Epstein also didn’t mention the bill’s total eradication of the ESA Program. Rather, the senator indicated that her issue with the ESA Program concerned its universalization. 

“The unaccountable government expansion of ESA vouchers has put our state’s financial security, and our students, at risk,” said Epstein. “These commonsense safeguards will be vitally important for giving Arizona children a safe and quality education, and bring the same accountability and oversight to ESAs that we expect for any taxpayer spending.”

Similarly, House Minority Leader Lupe Contreras (D-LD22) — anticipated to introduce mirror legislation soon — said that the legislation consisted of “basic standards” for transparency and accountability.

The governor put the legislature on notice of the forthcoming legislative package earlier this month.

The day after Hobbs dropped her legislation, ADE Superintendent Tom Horne released the latest data on the ESA Program. Horne reported a projected surplus of $28 million through the 2024 fiscal year, which ends in June. 

Citing the projected surplus, Horne denounced the accusations from Hobbs and Democratic lawmakers that the state’s budget woes were attributable to the ESA Program expansion.

“Whatever budget issues state lawmakers are facing this year, they have not been created by the ESA program or any other aspect of basic state aid for education,” said Horne. “The fact there is a surplus in basic state aid, including the ESA program, demonstrates our commitment to good financial stewardship.”

Matt Beienburg of the Goldwater Institute, a major proponent of the ESA Program, said that Hobbs’ proposal constituted “an all-out assault” on students and their families as well as a “government takeover” of private schools.

“Building off Gov. Hobbs’s recent proposal to rip away 50,000 ESA scholarship awards, this legislation goes even further and would terminate the entire ESA program—including for students with special needs—before thousands of these children even complete their studies,” said Beienburg. “This legislation would impose a government takeover of private school tuition rates and operational decisions, attempting to destroy private education and parental autonomy, forcing thousands of families back into a system they’ve desperately tried to escape.”

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

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