GOP-led Arizona Senate approves huge school voucher expansion

Arizona’s Republican-controlled Senate approved a massive expansion of the state’s school voucher system on Wednesday, a contentious proposal the sponsor says is aimed at low-income students but that also adds wealthier parents who could use public money to pay for private schools.

The measure would make as many as 85% of the state’s 1.1 million public school students eligible for funds, although only a fraction would be expected to actually sign up for the program. It comes less than four years after Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a law that offered vouchers for all students.

The latest proposal faces an uncertain future in the state House, where a similar measure failed last year when three Republicans joined all Democrats in rejecting it. Just one Republican is needed to kill the measure if Democrats all vote against it.

One House Republican who opposed voucher expansion last year said last week she will not support this year’s measure without major changes to ensure accountability such as mandatory testing.

"I don’t want to see taxpayer money get wasted on education that we don’t know is really education," GOP Rep. Michelle Udall.

Republican Sen. Paul Boyer of Glendale called his measure "a lifeline" for students and parents caught in failing schools. And he said that the 2018 rejection would not happen today.

"COVID has changed everything," Boyer said during the Senate debate. "I’ve heard from parents across the state desperate to get their kids into a healthy educational environment."

Rejecting the expansion is akin to telling those children that "you’re stuck," Boyer said.

All Senate Democrats opposed the measure, saying that low-income families have little chance of using a voucher even it one were offered and that vouchers will siphon cash from the public schools they do attend.

"Eligibility does not equate to having the ability to use it," Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said.

"And for us to continue that narrative is a flat-out lie," Quezada. "That doesn’t make logistical sense for people who are living in poverty."

RELATED: Arizona governor's $10M Educational Recovery Fund in question by some parents still waiting for the money

Boyer’s proposal would allow about 690,000 additional students to quality for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the state’s voucher program, according to an analysis released during the vote by the Legislature’s non-partisan analysts. Currently about 255,000 of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students qualify, although fewer than 11,000 take them now.

It would cover any student who would attend a school categorized as low-income under federal guidelines, a point Boyer highlighted. The proposed expansion would also allow any student whose family qualifies for federal food stamps, welfare or subsidized housing to get a voucher.

But wrapped into the bill are other categories that includes those with much higher incomes — including children of police, firefighters, doctors and nurses.

Any child who currently is receiving money to attend a private school under Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s disputed program that uses federal COVID-19 relief money to pay for the vouchers would be included. Just 134 were as of last Tuesday, according to the governor’s office.

Rounding out the expansion would be students who attend any district that needs a new school because of enrollment growth. Schools that get more money per student than state universities charge for tuition also are in, a provision that covers nearly a third of all students in Arizona.

Boyer, the main bill’s sponsor, said he wants to give children in schools that do not meet their needs a chance to get a better education.

Republican Sen. Vince Leach said parents upset with the teaching of divisive subjects and COVID-19 restrictions are already leaving public schools, whether vouchers expand or not.

"Parents are not walking from what we know as public, and I will call it government, schools," Leach said. "They are running; they’re absolutely, absolutely running."

But Quezada said that proves there’s no need to provide vouchers, since open enrollment and other state policies allow students to go to any traditional public school or charter school.

"School choice is already here," Quezada said. "No need to expand school choice. All right. We’ve done it. Good job."

About 10,500 Arizona students currently getting Empowerment Scholarship Account vouchers cost the state about $150 million a year. More than half are disabled.

Under the program, parents get 90% of the state funds that normally 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.

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