Its a topic of much debate: how much is the universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program costing the state versus how much is saving the state?

It depends on who you ask. However, a non-partisan organization released a new report showing how much more of a cost it is.

Its a constant fight between the Republican and Democratic lawmakers over how much the universal ESA, also known as “school vouchers,” is costing the state, and the lack of the right amount of rules there are around it.

There certainly should be bipartisan support for the need for some guardrails there, Governor Katie Hobbs said in an interview in early January.

Republicans have long maintained that ESAs are not draining the budget, saying it is also not the issue of the state budget shortfall.

It is an absolute myth to say ESAs cost more money, or costing the taxpayer more money than public schools, said State Senate President Warren Petersen in a news conference in late January.

The Learning Policy Institute, a national nonpartisan organization, just released a new report showing how much it is on top, as estimates have varied depending on which state organizations or agencies are asked.

Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst and researcher with the institute, said other states were inquiring about the cost of ESAs in Arizona.

This is something unusual about this program that most programs that states run, either have a cap and the total amount of people who can participate, or they have a cap in the cost and that’s how you control cost and make sure you know, break your budget and this program doesnt, Griffith said.

While Griffith said they have no stance on the outcome of how the report may affect the program or politics in Arizona, Chuck Essigs, with the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, says the reports data is defending the position that school districts have been taking in terms of the program being a significant new cost to the state.

Before the program expanded universally, about 11,000 students used ESAs. As of Monday, that number skyrocketed to more than 75,000 students.

The Learning Policy Institute estimates that a universal ESA student averaged about $7,800 per pupil in the last school year. Charter school kids cost the state a little more at $8,600 and public school district students a little less at $7,200 per student. So, theres an average savings of $860 for former charter school students, but it costs about $500 more for district students.

In the student breakdown, about 470 universal ESA students came from charter schools. Another 16,500 came from district schools. However, the biggest group, by far, who went into ESA, were students who were never enrolled in a public school at around 37,700 students.

The report says since those students were never part of the funding, they made up about $270 million net increase to the states budget.

Griffith said the report only looked into data up to December of 2023. Since then, the number of students and the cost grew.

It’s been growing on average of 350 kids each week since we stopped our study, which would actually increase the cost to about another $21 to $28 million since we stopped our study, Griffith said.

Governor Hobbs worked with Democratic lawmakers in proposing reforms for the ESA program. However, State Senator Christine Marsh (D) told ABC15 on Monday that many of those bills are dead.

Some of those bills included requiring students who want to use the ESA program to attend public schools for at least 100 days at any point in their education, create audit authority for the Auditor General to monitor and report how ESA money is being spent and used by private schools as well as require staff teaching at private schools using ESA money to go through a fingerprint background check.

Because some of, you know, at least one of them is very much about safety. I find [it] very disappointing, Marsh said.

Marsh said one bill that has not been shot down yet is one she sponsored requiring the Arizona Department of Education to include ESA funding estimates in their budget funding. She believes its possible it wont pass, though.

However, its not surprising as some Republican lawmakers have said that Hobbs and the Democrats proposals on ESA reform would be dead on arrival.