Arizona House committee advances bill to revamp school funding, voucher expansion

Republican leaders of the Arizona House have advanced legislation on June 14 that will substantially revamp the state’s school funding formula, add about $200 million in new yearly funding for K-12 schools and create a universal private school voucher system.

Majority Republicans see the effort as the culmination of more than a decade of work to expand parents’ ability to bypass traditional district schools and standalone charter schools and allow parents to use public money to pay tuition at religious or other private schools.

The measure passed the House committee in a 6 to 4 vote, meaning that it now heads to the full House floor.

But public school advocates slammed the proposal at a news conference held just before the House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on the proposal and eventually advanced it to the full House on a 6-4 party-line vote.

They argue that Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expansion just four years ago and that the state’s public schools remain woefully underfunded despite new spending approved by the Legislature and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in recent years.

The current proposal has a one-time investment of $200 million to a fund that helps pay for school operations and teacher salaries. The $200 million is ongoing funding that will be split between schools with high rates of low-income students, to increase spending on English language learners and to a fund that boosts money for all traditional and charter schools. That’s on top of new school spending already in a budget deal that is currently stalled.

The proposals are set for a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The complicated new school funding and voucher expansion bills were introduced late Tuesday.

Arizona’s constitution allows opponents of laws enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor to block them by collecting signatures of 5% of qualified voters. If they do, the measure is placed on the next general election ballot. The previous expansion was rejected by two-thirds of the state’s voters.

The new voucher expansion proposal contains a poison pill designed to prevent that effort. It is linked to new school funding, $200 million in ongoing cash and another $200 million in one-time money, and that funding will only be allocated if the voucher expansion is enacted and goes into effect.

Parents, educators speak in public forum

In a public forum at the State Capitol building, parents and educators stood before the Arizona Ways and Means Committee, arguing their perspective on the proposed universal private school voucher system.

GOP Majority Leader Ben Toma is spearheading the proposal, and says this is different than the school voucher legislation that was voted down in 2018.

"It's not about private vs. public education, it's about parents getting a choice for their children," Toma said. "The best choice that they can make, that they and their family can make for the needs of that particular child."

Lawmakers did not unanimously agree, with some taking issue with a lack of ability for the state to monitor tests and progress in the voucher program.

"We don't know if students will really be learning anything," said Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler of Paradise Valley. "We're going to go hand thousands of our tax dollars over and the state is not gonna get to see the results of testing to find out if that money was well spent, if there is student growth. It's totally unaccountable."

Democrats, united in opposition to the voucher bill, liked some parts of the school funding proposal. The $200 million in ongoing cash provides extra money for low-income schools called "opportunity weight" and boosts funding for students just learning English.

"We really do need to (give) more funding for students who are in poverty and are receiving free and reduced price lunch," Butler said. "So that is a shocking inclusion in this bill and I’m glad to see it there."

But she and other Democrats criticized other parts of the school funding bill, including the $200 million in one-time cash and that while voucher expansion will take effect on July 1, the new funding doesn’t kick in until July 2023.

"Tying it to vouchers makes no sense," Tempe Democratic Rep. Mitzi Epstein said. "There’s no relevant connection in there, except the political one."

Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said a huge issue is a poison pill — a conditional enactment that says schools won’t get the new funding unless the voucher bill passes and goes into effect.

"Here at the Capitol all I hear is anti-public school rhetoric, anti-teacher rhetoric," said Lewis. "It's deployed time and time again under the guise of choice. This is not choice. It is not the child's choice, it is not the parent's choice, it is the school's choice."

A voter referendum, like the one her group got on the 2018 ballot, would imperil new school funding.

"As someone who has exercised their constitutional right to referendum I think that’s pretty disgusting," Lewis said. "And as a parent who wants that funding for their kids that’s really not OK."

"Tying it to vouchers makes no sense," Tempe Democratic Rep. Mitzi Epstein said. "There’s no relevant connection in there, except the political one."

Toma defended linking the bills, noting that doing so is similar to normal budget negotiations and the related horse trading.

"In order to get my vote and many other conservative votes on additional K-12 spending ... we tie it to something else," Toma said. "In balance it ends up being something that we can all support."

The fate of the voucher expansion plan is not certain, since Republicans hold only one-vote majorities in the House and Senate and there is at least one GOP member in both chambers not committed to backing the measures. It has no Democratic backing.

Republican Sen. Paul Boyer said Wednesday he is reviewing the proposal but has concerns. And Rep. Michelle Udall said Tuesday that she wanted either more accountability than the limited testing now in the plan or much more money for K-12 schools.

Finding money, for once, isn’t a problem. The state is sitting on an unprecedented surplus of more than $5.3 billion even accounting for $1.7 billion in income tax cuts enacted by the Legislature over unified Democratic opposition last year.

School funding not the only problem for lawmakers

Breaking the logjam on the school funding and voucher bills are just two of the major issues facing lawmakers in the final weeks of the session.

They need to get a budget in place by June 30 or a shutdown of state services will go into effect. And lawmakers have been stuck for more than two months without a deal in part because one Senate Republican, Paul Boyer, is demanding a huge new investment in K-12 schools before he’ll back a budget deal.

He said Tuesday he’s not been briefed on Toma’s package of bills.

Boyer has been pushing for a "Grand Bargain" that would include much of the $900 million in voter-approved funding that Proposition 208 would have provided if the Arizona Supreme Court had not declared it unconstitutional. He also has been pushing since last year for a major expansion of the voucher program.

But some Senate Republicans have publicly opposed any additional school funding.

Udall said last week she also wants a very large new investment in K-12 schools, "a pretty big chunk," of the $900 million Boyer wants.

The state is flush with cash, sitting on an unprecedented surplus of more than $5.3 billion. That’s even accounting for $1.7 billion in income tax cuts enacted by the Legislature over unified Democratic opposition last year.

The actual tax cuts had been on hold because opponents collected enough signatures to block them until voters can approve or reject them in November. But the Arizona Supreme Court in April ruled voters can’t block them, although the court has not explained its reasoning, and they are now in effect.

The current budget is $12.8 billion, and Republican house and Senate leaders have a deal to spend $15.1 billion in the next budget year and add to current year spending as well.