PHOENIX — Four years after voters rejected expanding an education voucher program, Republican state lawmakers are trying again — and in a big way.
Senate Bill 1452 would allow any student who meets certain standards to get more than $4,300 a year of tax dollars to attend a private or parochial school. It also would permit parents to use those dollars for home schooling or forming a “pod” with neighbors to teach their children.
The measure, approved late Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee, would enable a massive expansion of a program that started in 2011 as a small alternative for students with special physical or emotional needs their parents said could not be met at home.
Since then, there has been a near-constant expansion of the eligibility list, which now includes foster children, children living on reservations, children of active duty military, and those attending public schools rated D or F.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, did not provide any estimates of what his legislation would mean in terms of student numbers.
But Aaron Wonders, lobbyist for the state Department of Education, estimated that about 250,000 students in Arizona are currently eligible for a voucher, formally known as an Empowerment Scholarship Account.
He figures SB 1452 could balloon that up to 700,000 of the state’s 1.1 million students in public schools.
Boyer said his legislation is targeted at students from low-income families. But the wording appears to have a loophole that would open the door to students from well-to-do families simply because their children were attending a school where there were enough poor students to classify it as eligible for Title I services for the needy.
Income issues aside, Boyer said it’s a matter of choice.
“It’s only a choice if it’s funded”
There already are options for parents.
Arizona does not require students to attend traditional public schools in their neighborhoods. They are free to enroll at other school districts if those have the space. Or, they can attend charter schools, which are public schools under Arizona law, without cost.
“But it’s only a choice if it’s funded,” Boyer said. “It’s only a choice if a student has access to the school. It’s only a choice if they’re not stuck on a wait list for years and years and told year after year after year, ‘Just wait until we’re fully funded, then it will get better.’ ”
Boyer, who is a teacher at a charter school, said he sees the issue as providing what a family thinks is best, rather than essentially telling children their only choice is the neighborhood school which may or may not be meeting their needs.
“It’s cruel to tell a child you’re stuck in your failing school, and we’re going to fight you at every step along the way to make sure that you never leave,” he said.
For public schools, a “Catch-22”
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said the discussion about needing vouchers to provide alternatives for students misses a key point.
“The irony is if we were funding our schools appropriately, we wouldn’t have kids who felt or families who felt the need to leave, or certainly not as many,” she said.
When students leave the public school system, that reduces the state aid, which is funded on a per-student basis, leaving the schools even worse off.
“So it’s like this Catch 22,” Marsh said.
The committee was divided along party lines.
Takes money out of a system “barely coping”
However, there are some leaders in the business community, which traditionally aligned with GOP priorities, who find the voucher expansion idea unacceptable. Among them is Jim Swanson, CEO of Kitchell Corp., a major Arizona construction firm.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I support school choice through quality charters and open enrollment in our school districts.”
But this bill, Swanson said, is not the answer.
“The ESA expansion takes money out of an already underfunded, overburdened system, a system that is barely coping with teachers leaving and retiring, a shortage of counselors, and an over-reliance on bonds and overrides to fund school operations at the district level,” he said.
Would help students afford Catholic high schools
The legislation involves more than a transfer of funds from public schools to private ones.
One provision in Boyer’s legislation says that high schoolers could get not just a voucher but a separate scholarship financed by donations to school tuition organizations to help pay those private and parochial school expenses. That’s crucial as donors get a dollar-for-dollar credit against income tax owed to the state, reducing overall state revenues for education and other priorities.
Ron Johnson, who lobbies for the state’s Catholic bishops and the schools they run, said the move is necessary to keep kids in Catholic schools past the eighth grade.
He said many voucher-funded students go to public schools after eighth grade because they can’t afford the higher tuition charged for high school. Combining vouchers and the tax-credit-financed scholarships can make up the difference, Johnson said.
The measure also would, for the first time, allow parents to use their vouchers to pay for public or commercial transportation between home and the student’s chosen school.
Opposition group might take it again to voters
If Boyer gets his measure through the Legislature and signed by the governor, that is unlikely to be the last word.
Beth Lewis, co-founder of Save Our Schools Arizona, said her organization will take “any action to right this wrong.”
One of those options would be to ask voters to void the law.
It was Lewis’ group that gathered enough signatures in 2017, the last time lawmakers tried a major expansion, to put the issue on the ballot. Voters overrode the measure by a 2-1 margin.