PHOENIX - Arizona Superintendent of Public Schools Tom Horne is estimating close to a hundred thousand applicants to the current voucher program, and the move could cost around $900 million of taxpayer money.
It was expected to cost the taxpayers $500 million next year, but Horne just announced it will cost around $900 million.
Critics have questioned where the funds will come from in the state budget and the lack of oversight once funding is dispersed to families.
The cost is astronomically higher than the original estimate of $30 million a year.
Horne says the reason the numbers jumped so much is that new data has come in. He expects the number of applicants to reach that 100,000 by the end of the 2024 fiscal year.
"There are currently 61,000 students in the ESA program, including 3,000 that are in the queue. That is from a period of a little over half a year since this became a universal program. Our projection is not only for the next year, but actually for 13 months, and we're projecting 39,000 more," Horne said.
The voucher program started in 2016 but became a universal option in 2022, giving parents the ability to take money allocated for their child in public school and apply it to any private school of their choice.
"My main duty is to encourage excellence in public schools, and we have a lot of excellent public schools, but if their child's needs are not being met. They need to know that they have a choice," he said.
The President of the Arizona Education Association (AEA) says families don't fully understand what they're signing up for and believes the expansion of the program will negatively affect those students and public educators.
"It means that we will continue to be underfunded. Educators will be fleeing the state. They're going to go to places where they feel respected and valued. I also think what that means is the students or Arizona are not going to get every opportunity that they deserve despite where they live or where they want to go to school," said Marisol Garcia, AEA's President.
Since the money will come from a general state fund, it could and would likely affect other state entities.
"What it means to taxpayers is we have close to $900 million, almost a billion dollars being given to we don't know who, on what, for how much. I don't know any other program in the country or in the state that allows some sort of program like that to continue to proliferate," Garica said.
Horne says the funding would be in the education system, whether private or public sector.
The association is asking the state legislature and Arizona Governor Hobbs to take action and put a limit on how much taxpayer money could be used for this.