Voucher program will spend more than $300 million this school year
Arizona will spend at least $313 million on education vouchers this school year, according to the Arizona Department of Education's first quarterly report on the program since the Legislature made vouchers available to all students.
Since the end of last school year, the Empowerment Scholarship Account program has more than doubled in size. It now covers more students than many school districts in the state. Families can use the funds for tuition at a private school, tutoring services, therapy services and learning materials like books or art supplies.
Lawmakers expanded the voucher program in June. By the end of September, it was cleared to go into effect for this school year. As of Sept. 30, there were 30,471 students in the program, according to the report, released Monday. At the end of last school year, there were 12,127 students in the program.
The largest number of students in the program — nearly 17,000 — signed up through the new universal eligibility category. Just over 8,000 students qualified as special needs students. Other voucher qualification categories include students from military families, students who live on tribal lands and students who are siblings of voucher recipients.
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A legislative budget analysis from earlier this year projected the program would increase general education fund costs by $33.4 million in fiscal year 2023. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which wrote the analysis, considered the estimate to be "highly speculative, as the participation rate among currently ineligible pupils is difficult to know in advance."
The average annual award amount for current voucher recipients is about $11,300, according to the report.
The number of voucher recipients receiving $30,000 or more almost doubled, from 2,472 in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022 to 4,665 students in the first quarter of fiscal year 2023.
The most common award amount, which has been allocated to 10,954 families, is between $7,000 and $7,999.
The Arizona Department of Education is charged with overseeing the ESA program. Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect Tom Horne has expressed support for the program.
Earlier this month, Horne named Christine Accurso executive director of the voucher program. She has been one of Arizona's most visible voucher advocates. She encouraged people not to sign petitions that would have put the Legislature's decision to expand the voucher program before voters on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Yana Kunichoff is a reporter on The Arizona Republic's K-12 education team. You can join the Republic's Facebook page, reach Yana at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @yanazure.