The portion of students taking advantage of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program after previously attending a public school has dramatically shifted.
According to the latest information from the Arizona Department of Education, the ESA program now has 47,200 students participating. The data, released Monday, is a marked increase from the roughly 30,000 students participating in January.
“We get 150 new applications a day,” said Christine Accurso, executive director of the ESA program. “When we first started on Jan. 3, we were at about 120 a day.”
Accurso shared with The Center Square a change in the proportion of ESA students who were at one time a student of a public school in the state.
“Back in August, the Department of Education announced that 75% of the students that were in the ESA program had never had any public school experience,” Accurso said. “That number today is 51%.”
Accurso can easily arrive at this number because students who never enrolled in a public school in Arizona lack a state ID.
“If you look at all of the ESAs that we have and who has a state ID and who doesn’t, 51% do not and 49% do,” she said. “You’re seeing a lot more people leave the public school system.”
Arizona’s ESA program allows parents to take 90% of the state allocation meant for a public school student and use that to pay for their child’s private school tuition or a host of other educational materials.
Former Gov. Doug Ducey ushered through the Arizona Legislature an expansion of the program to apply to any student, not just those whose parents are low-income or have a disability. The ESA program allows around $7,000 for parents in the form of a pre-paid card.
Critics of the program say the approved expenses lack oversight. Accurso, who oversees the approval process, said any approved expenses must be tied to the student’s curriculum.
Newly-elected Gov. Katie Hobbs said in her State of the State address that the program would bankrupt the state’s budget. She promised to roll the program back.
“Funding this expansion is poised to cost Arizona taxpayers an estimated $1.5 billion over the next 10 years if left unaddressed,” she said.
Accurso said a rollback of the ESA program represents pulling potentially thousands of students out of a school where they’re thriving.
“That’s horrible,” she said. “We would never want to move a child from a school they’re thriving in that parents put them in.”
Arizona’s legislative leaders have assured the department that they will not allow the ESA program to be rolled back, Accurso said.
Accurso expects the spring to bring an increase in ESA applications for students applying to private schools for the 2023-2024 school year.