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Universal ESA Vouchers: Arizona’s $1 Billion Failed Experiment | Opinion

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by Beth Lewis, Arizona Mirror
August 16, 2023

Recent weeks have brought an unrelenting torrent of bad news around Arizona’s universal school voucher program, the largest and least accountable in the country. 

And what has been the response from our state legislature? Republican leaders concluded the longest legislative session in state history without even so much as a token attempt to create any controls for the program, make it safe for kids, or even budget to cover its ballooning costs. 

It’s becoming abundantly clear that Arizona’s universal voucher program, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESA, is a failed $1 billion experiment that comes at the expense of over 1 million Arizona kids. 

And now Republican political strategists are warning the politicians pushing these unregulated, budget-busting vouchers that they do so at their own peril. 

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Longtime GOP strategist Barrett Marson sharply criticized Arizona’s Republican legislative majority for their carelessly constructed program: “(Tom) Horne has estimated approaching $1 billion for this program, and there are no controls.” 

GOP campaign consultant and lobbyist Chuck Coughlin expressed skepticism that Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, would actually ensure oversight of “overwhelmed” ESA vouchers, saying “the infrastructure just isn’t there” and calling Horne’s sworn attempts to ensure voucher accountability “legal fiction.” 

We couldn’t agree more. 

Indeed, Horne’s Department of Education is issuing nonstop approvals for frivolous and extravagant voucher expenditures, underscoring the program’s utter lack of accountability. Taxpayer-funded vouchers for waterskiing lessons in Missouri? Museum tickets in Europe? Espresso machines, home gyms and bounce houses? All approved, paid for with tax dollars.

On average, ESA vouchers are diverting $300,000 away from every neighborhood school in the state, even as local public school teachers struggle to fund basic supplies like printer paper and crayons to start the school year. 

Arizona voters are right to be hopping mad. 

Christine Jones, a business leader and former Republican candidate, cautioned, “Anything that spends money that comes from taxpayers matters, especially to Republicans… The thing we should be focusing on is fraud… I think as we look at spending hundreds of millions of dollars on anything, we have to have some integrity in the process.” 

Yet integrity seems far from the minds of our Republican legislative leaders — they are outright refusing to address obvious flaws leading to waste and abuse. 

Horne’s ESA voucher oversight arm continues to be rocked by chaos and scandal. Recently, the top two ESA officials abruptly resigned as a related investigation by the Arizona Department of Homeland Security found a massive data breach of students’ personal information. It is blindingly clear that last year’s universal ESA voucher expansion is far from the utopia promised by former Gov. Doug Ducey, Arizona Republican lawmakers, Trump education chief Betsy DeVos and other special interests forcing vouchers onto our state.

Gov. Katie Hobbs’ budget office now projects vouchers will cost $950 million next year, $320 million of which is unbudgeted. And Attorney General Kris Mayes is warning ESA voucher parents that, when they opt out of public schools for a voucher, their children lose many protections and rights, which may lead to discrimination or loss of services like special education and disability accommodations. 

Yet Republican lawmakers refuse to address these serious issues, choosing to push fiction and fake math over well-documented facts. 

While voucher pushers struggle to spin Arizona’s anything-goes universal ESA fiasco as a shining example, red states across the country are learning from Arizona’s mistakes. Many are rejecting vouchers altogether. Others are limiting vouchers to low-income students and implementing safety and academic accountability measures (which Arizona’s program utterly lacks). 

Even Florida had the sense to ensure its universal vouchers could only be used at accredited private schools. 

As Jones said, even adamant universal voucher supporters need to ask, “What are we spending the money on, and is it going to actually educate children?’” 

Because lawmakers crafted voucher expansion as a black box, we simply don’t know. 

Coughlin says he believes that vouchers will be a defining election issue in 2024, and moderate voters in swing districts are extremely concerned by the absolute dearth of data, accountability and oversight of their tax dollars. 

There’s only one thing left for our legislature to do: enact comprehensive solutions to fix this failed experiment before it goes completely off the rails. We predict ESA vouchers will be the deciding factor in electing a pro-public education legislature in 2024 — just as we predict lawmakers who fail to put controls on this budget-busting spending spree of taxpayer funds will pay the price at the ballot box.

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Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: info@azmirror.com. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.