PHOENIX — Democrat David Garcia criticized Republican Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday for signing legislation last year to let any student take advantage of a voucher program now reserved for students with special needs.
In the first of two debates between the gubernatorial candidates, Garcia pointed out that the vouchers to attend private or parochial schools with tax dollars have, until now, been limited to students who fall into certain categories. Those include children with disabilities, foster children, children living on reservations, and students attending schools rated D or F.
The legislation Ducey signed would remove all those preconditions.
“The intent is a universal voucher program to privatize public education,” Garcia said. “And when that happens, we will have a society of haves and have-nots immediately.”
Ducey said the measure would not mean “universal” vouchers because the legislation would cap the number at around 30,000, at least until 2022.
At that point, it would be up to lawmakers to decide whether to open it up. Proponents have conceded their ultimate goal is, in fact, vouchers for all 1.1 million students.
Ducey argued that they’re not really vouchers but “empowerment scholarship accounts.”
“And these are for parents in special situations,” he said, citing a parent whose child has cerebral palsy. “The only way Kathy’s been able to fund the educational therapy for her son is these educational savings accounts.”
Ducey did not dispute, however, that the expanded program would be available to any student, special needs or not.
Garcia, who teaches education at Arizona State University, said that would put the parents of special needs students in competition for the limited vouchers available with others who simply want their children to get a private or religious education at state expense.
“If your concern is students with disabilities, then why not keep it there?” Garcia asked.
He said Ducey’s decision to sign the voucher expansion in 2017 also is a betrayal of the voters who, at Ducey’s behest, approved Proposition 123 in 2016.
That measure will put $3.5 billion into public schools for a decade, with the money coming largely from a trust account already set aside for education. Garcia said people — including he — supported the ballot measure based on Ducey’s promise that was just a first step and there would be further funding action.
That further action, Garcia said, turned out to be expansion of state-funded vouchers.
“And, like a lot of parents, I felt betrayed,” he said, saying he believes universal vouchers “would devastate public education.”
Voters will get the last word on those vouchers. A group of educators, organized as Save Our Schools, gathered enough signatures to prevent the measure from taking effect until voters get a chance to ratify or reject it in November.
Green Party candidate Angel Torres, like Garcia, said people should vote “no” on the vouchers measure, Proposition 305.
He said the priority has to be to fully fund K-12 public education. Torres said that means not just more money for teacher pay but also to buy the latest technology for students, fix aging buildings and replace textbooks that are 20 years old.
“We can’t afford to have a parallel system,” Torres said, referring to private schools attended by students using tax dollars.
Ducey criticized Garcia for supporting an initiative to increase income taxes on earnings above $250,000 a year to raise $690 million a year for education.
The Arizona Supreme Court removed the measure from the ballot, saying its wording was misleading. It failed to inform voters the change would affect taxes for Arizonans below that figure.
But the governor said he sees something more sinister. “The Supreme Court caught David Garcia trying to rig an election and mislead voters and deceive them,” Ducey said.
“The Supreme Court caught me rigging an election?” Garcia responded. “There is no evidence at all.”
Garcia said that while he supported the measure, he was not involved in its drafting.
The Democratic challenger spent much of the hourlong debate at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, attacking what he said are Ducey’s broken promises and failed policies.
The governor struck back, seeking to paint the Democrat as soft on border security. Garcia has said he would defund the Border Strike Force made up of Department of Public Safety and local law enforcement officers. Ducey credits it with major seizures of drugs and weapons.
But Garcia said when Ducey got the funds for the strike force, it was with the promise that state highways in Southern Arizona would be patrolled 24 hours a day. In fact, there are no DPS officers on duty in the area between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Ducey sidestepped the question of that promise of 24/7 DPS patrols, saying the agency is “working with our border sheriffs, our local law enforcement, and our border agents to patrol our highways” and stop drug trafficking.
“From 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. they are left unguarded to those traffickers,” Garcia retorted, saying he would use the money spent on the Border Strike Force to fulfill the promise of round-the-clock DPS patrols.
Garcia also has said he would remove the National Guard from the border. He also said he would revamp Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Ducey has translated that into support for abolishing the agency, something Garcia has not actually said.
Garcia, in turn, took a shot at Ducey, saying any success in curbing drug trafficking “is not about the men and women who are doing great work. It is about you, standing in front of them, as someone who has never worn a uniform, and taking credit for their work.” Garcia reminded viewers he served in the military and Ducey did not.
Ducey boasted of the economic recovery since he took office in 2015. He said that includes 237,000 new jobs created in the state, to the point where he claimed that there are more jobs than people willing to take them.
That left Torres unimpressed. He acknowledged that companies are moving to Arizona.
“Are they paying a living wage and a wage that (people can) survive?” he asked, pointing to recent figures that one out of every seven Arizonans still lives in poverty.
“The economy is booming for the top 1 percent, for the people who have the money to invest in Wall Street,” Torres said. “But for workers, our economy is not booming.”
Ducey and Garcia will face off again Tuesday at an event in Tucson; Torres was not included.