Arizona legislature adjourns after deal on voucher expansion

Republican lawmakers on June 30 dropped a push to significantly expand Arizona’s school voucher program, instead adopting limited changes before adjourning one of the longest legislative sessions in state history.

The agreement on vouchers and a handful of other disputes ended a stalemate between the House and Senate that held up the final pieces of the state budget and kept lawmakers in session for 171 days.

Three House Republicans had balked at a Senate-approved plan to open the voucher program to about 600,000 new low-income students. Instead, they agreed only to shorten waiting periods for the roughly 250,000 children already eligible.

The voucher dispute highlighted the contentious nature of the 2021 session, in which Republicans had razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate. Opposition from any any of the 31 Republicans in the House or the 16 in the Senate was enough to kill legislation if no Democrats were on board, creating what Republican Rep. John Kavanagh called "47 governors" with veto power.

Despite the narrow margins and the failure on school vouchers, Republicans advanced a staunchly conservative agenda this year that included massive tax cuts focused primarily on the wealthy, new abortion restrictions, limits on sexual education and election law changes.

Democrats were frustrated. "This as been a really trying session," said Rep. Charlene Fernandez, a Democrat from Yuma.

In the final hours of the session on Wednesday, Republicans gave up on the push to expand the voucher program to cover more than half the state’s 1.1 million public school children.

Under the agreement, children who already qualify for the program will no longer have to spend 100 days in a public school before receiving a voucher to pay for private-school tuition. Children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and live in the boundaries of a poorly rated public school will be eligible immediately, while others will have to spend 45 days in their public school.

With the shorter waiting period, "they don’t have to linger and struggle in the school," said Sen. Paul Boyer, a Glendale Republican who advocated for the full expansion.

"The school could be a great school, but it might not work for that kid," Boyer said.

The voucher program is open to foster children and those with special needs, living on a Native American reservation or attending a poorly rated school. Children with parents in the military, a blind or deaf parent, or a sibling who gets a voucher also qualify.

Boyer had hoped to open the program to all children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and those receiving Title I services.

Republicans have called Boyer’s proposal a lifeline for low-income students, while Democrats argue it would siphon money from already underfunded public schools.

Just three years ago, Arizona voters by a 2-1 margin rejected a universal school voucher plan passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Ducey.

Children in struggling schools need the Legislature to focus on improving their schools, said Sen. Martín Quezada, a Democrat from Glendale.

"They don’t need a parachute or an escape to take them out of their neighborhood," Quezada said. "They need us to invest in their neighborhood."

The state Department of Education says about 250,000 students are now eligible, but only about 9,800 students are currently getting vouchers and half are disabled children attending specialized schools. Technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, they cost the state about $145 million a year. Parents get 90% of the state funds that would otherwise go to their local public school to use for private school tuition and other education costs. Disabled students can receive up to $40,000 for specialized therapy.

The House and Senate also voted to increase the daily payments given to lawmakers from outside Maricopa County to cover their costs for staying in Phoenix during the legislative session. If Ducey signs off, rural lawmakers’ per diem will be tied to the rate for federal employees traveling on business to Phoenix, currently $207.

Currently, Maricopa County lawmakers get $35 a day while rural legislators get $60. The new rates would continue to drop after 120 days of session, as they do now.

Supporters of the increase said the current rates, which were last changed in 1984, fall far short of the cost to maintain safe housing in Phoenix. Several critics said the Legislature shouldn’t be rushing through such a change on the last day of the legislative session.

Ducey vetoed similar legislation two years ago that would have also boosted payments to legislators who live locally.

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