Homeschool and private school families enrolled at a higher rate than expected into Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, but state Republican leaders say the school voucher program is not responsible for the state budget shortfall.

“It’s a myth that the ESAs are causing bankruptcy for the state,” State Superintendent Tom Horne said. “The fact is that they’re not part in any way of the budget deficit that’s caused by other things.”

Using numbers released by the state Department of Education Tuesday, Horne explained the department has an overall budget surplus for fiscal year 2024 (FY2024). This comes despite initial FY2024 allocations for ESAs being $624 million, and the estimate has ballooned to $732 million at the mid-year point.

Horne and state Republican legislative leaders blamed the budget shortfall mostly on a steep decrease in income tax revenue. They said taxpayers save thousands of dollars if a child enrolls in the ESA program instead of public schools. Their figures are based on total taxpayer spending, which includes property taxes and federal funding.

When looking at state-only funding, the independent Joint Legislative Budget Committee calculates the FY2024 average per-pupil spending is $8,164 for combined public district and charter school students. ESA scholarships are funded entirely with state-only funds, and the Department of Education’s most recent quarterly report shows the FY2024 ESA average per-pupil funding is $9,782.

A group of public school educators and parents listened to Horne’s budget update and heckled him. One held up a sign saying the state superintendent’s “pants are on fire.”

“We know that our schools are being defunded in service to this voucher program,” said Beth Lewis from Save Our Schools Arizona. “We know that lawmakers are not telling the truth.”

It seems like ESA voucher proponents might need a refresher from one of our educators on basic math,” Arizona Education Association President Marisol Garcia wrote in a statement. “Their claims about the program are misleading at best and straight-up lies at worst.”

This session, several bills relating to ESA reforms have been introduced in the legislature.