Democrat Katie Hobbs took the helm as governor of Arizona earlier this month. Her passionate priority is to repeal the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, which grants educational options to the children of Arizona families.
It would seem perplexing why a newly elected official’s top priority when working on the state budget would be to dismantle a popular program that provides significant cost savings to her state. Perplexing unless you understand the power politics in play — namely, teachers unions’ funding of Democratic candidates.
Clearly, for Ms. Hobbs, it’s about kowtowing to the teachers unions’ agenda rather than serving the families of Arizona — it was, after all, the union endorsements and funding that got her elected in an extremely tight contest. With K-12 public education being the largest employer in the state and teachers almost exclusively voting for union-endorsed candidates, the political influence of teachers unions is immense.
Going back to before the election, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Arizona endorsed Ms. Hobbs in April 2022. AFT Arizona President Ralph Quintana touted, “Just as Katie has done throughout her career in public service, we know she will continue to fight for quality education and resources that every student, teacher, and family in Arizona deserves.”
There was more than a little irony, however, in his talking points. Just a few months later, Ms. Hobbs was the leader of an effort to collect signatures to overturn the 2022 landmark universal school choice win that would grant flexibility to obtain quality education and resources for all Arizona families.
The universal school choice victory resulted from Arizona legislators’ passing HB 2853 in the 2022 session and sending the bill to then-Gov. Doug Ducey. He signed it into law on July 7. As a result, the ESA program was now accessible to the more than 1.1 million students in Arizona — granting educational freedom to all families by providing parents with a portion of their children’s state funds to select the educational avenue of their choice.
On July 7, Mr. Ducey sent Ms. Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state at the time, a letter outlining the bill. The letter reads: “Today, I proudly signed H.B. 2853. … The State of Arizona trusts parents to choose what works best to unlock their student’s greatest potential. Public education means educating the public, and in Arizona, government-run schools are only one of many options the public has access to. Whether they select their neighborhood district school, open enroll at a district school across town, choose a public charter school, homeschool, form a learning pod, or … attend a private school — the choice is theirs to make, not the government’s.”
Ms. Hobbs’ hostile response at the time was to attempt to employ Arizona’s veto referendum to stop the law from taking effect. Her effort failed miserably — Ms. Hobbs and her allies couldn’t obtain enough valid signatures (the law required 5% of the signatures from the most recent gubernatorial election turnout within 90 days of the law’s enactment to place the measure on the general election ballot). The people of Arizona made it clear — they want school choice for the families of their state. This is where the number problems started for Ms. Hobbs.
Undeterred, as governor and with the 2023 legislative session underway, Ms. Hobbs is doubling down on her position to undo Arizona’s educational freedom. Her proposed budget would reverse the expansion of ESAs.
Ms. Hobbs said in her inaugural State of the State address, “To Arizona’s educators, parents, and students: You know better than anyone that education must be a top issue we tackle.” The “you know better than anyone” phrase was to coax these groups into agreeing that her education agenda should be a top issue. She was signaling for their blind buy-in. This statement and her ESA repeal efforts are a stark contrast to the reality that parents know better than anyone what education avenue is right for their child.
Her rhetoric continued, “I have spent so much of my public life fighting for better schools … and that’s exactly what I’ll continue to do as governor.” But she hasn’t and isn’t fighting for better schools. She’s working to ensure that students are trapped in their assigned government schools despite the schools’ performance and despite the parental desire to select an alternative.
Invoking a fear strategy, Ms. Hobbs claims that Arizona’s expanded ESA “lacks accountability and will likely bankrupt this state.” She insists that the law will cost taxpayers “an estimated $1.5 billion over the next 10 years.” Misleadingly, Ms. Hobbs talks only about the cost of the ESA program while failing to mention the massive cost savings to the state, which is ultimately borne by the taxpayers. Instead of more than $12,000 spent per student, families opting to apply for an ESA would receive only $7,000. Thus, families exiting the public system will reduce expenses for the state and increase per-pupil funding for traditional public schools. Ms. Hobbs’ numbers don’t add up. She is gaslighting the people of Arizona by employing fear tactics and false rhetoric.
In her own words, Ms. Hobbs says her proposed budget “truly invests in public schools.” To be clear, by public schools, she doesn’t mean schools that serve the public but instead the government-run monster monopoly controlled by the teachers unions to whom she owes allegiance for her political victory of becoming governor. She wants more taxpayer money pumped into public schools while dismissing the enormous cost-saving benefits of ESAs.
With both the state House and Senate both holding Republican majorities, Ms. Hobbs will be hard-pressed to get her wishes. She simply doesn’t have the numbers. According to Jason Bedrick and Corey DeAngelis, the leaders of both of Arizona’s legislative chambers “have pronounced the governor’s budget dead on arrival.” This is yet another, and likely the most significant, numbers problem for Ms. Hobbs.
In addition, looking at voters’ position on school choice from Morning Consult poll data collected in January — 67% of adults in Arizona and 77% of parents in Arizona with school-aged children support ESAs. The numbers are telling. Ms. Hobbs isn’t going to win this battle, through her current budget efforts or beyond.
Arizona will remain the gold standard of educational freedom.
• Keri D. Ingraham is a fellow at Discovery Institute, director of the American Center for Transforming Education, and a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.