GOP-led Arizona Senate panel OKs school voucher expansions

Arizona Republicans who back the state’s private school voucher system are trying yet again to enact a major expansion of the program, with a plan to add all students who attend low-income schools or those from a host of other categories.

The Senate Education Committee on Feb. 8 approved the major expansion bill, which wrapped in contents of two smaller proposals. Republicans who dominate the committee backed the plan with no Democratic support.

The move comes after years of expansions and despite voters overwhelmingly rejecting a universal voucher proposal in 2018. But oddly, one of the smaller measures failed when Republican Sen. Tyler Pace defected after voting with the other GOP committee members for the larger proposal.

This year’s effort, sponsored by Glendale Republican Sen. Paul Boyer, would allow about 500,000 additional students to quality for Empowerment Scholarships, the state’s voucher program. Currently, about 255,000 of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students qualify, although fewer than 11,000 take them now.

In addition to covering any student who would attend a school categorized as low-income under federal guidelines, the proposed expansion would allow any student whose family qualifies for federal food stamps, welfare or subsidized housing to get an Empowerment Scholarship Account voucher.

Wrapped into the bill are other categories — including children of police, firefighters, nurses and military veterans. And 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 Tuesday, according to the governor’s office.

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

Rounding out the expansion would be students who attend any district that needs a new school because of enrollment growth and schools that get more money per student than Arizona State University charges for tuition.

The policy is backed by school choice advocates and powerful lobbying groups such as the Goldwater Institute and the Center for Arizona Policy. Ducey has supported previous expansions and called for more "school choice" expansions in January’s state of the state address.

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.

"For the kids that are fortunate enough to get the scholarship, it makes all the difference in the world," Boyer said. "To get out of an environment that’s failing them, and to opportunity, an equal opportunity that they currently don’t have with some of their peers, for future success."

Several parents testified that they saw great benefits from the ESA program. And Drew Anderson, a Black pastor and former NFL player who benefited from a voucher, said providing parents a choice to send their children to a high-achieving private school is a lifeline for minority children.

"Why is it OK for public dollars to go to private prisons, but not OK for our public dollars to go to private schools," Anderson said.

But a similar parade of parents and advocates opposed the measure, saying the Legislature should be putting more money into underperforming schools to improve them rather than working to expand the voucher system.

Among them was Jim Swanson, a prominent businessman who co-chaired Ducey’s Classrooms First Initiative Council in the mid-2010s. He said voters resoundingly rejected the voucher expansion and that the Legislature was wrong to think they can help only a few kids rather than work to improve the entire public education system. He noted that the last major voucher expansion passed by the Legislature was soundly rejected by voters.

"These schools are not accountable to anybody; they’re private schools; they don’t report to anybody. I don’t know how my dollars are going to be spent," Swanson said. "And I don’t know what’s being done with the dollars, whether they be being used appropriately or not."

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

Boyer said estimates from a similar proposal that failed last year showed about 25,000 more would take a voucher if the Legislature passes the measure. That is not certain, since last year’s bill died in the House amid a handful of Republican defections.

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.

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers says it’ll get done. Schools won’t have to worry about trying to figure out how to fill gaps caused by looming budget cuts if a school spending cap doesn’t get lifted by March 1.

"It’s not a done deal yet. State Republicans would like a definitive ruling on Prop 208 first," Bowers said. "It’s a political game of chicken so to speak - with districts worried they’ll lose millions they were promised from last year's budget. Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction used her annual state of education speech this week to blast lawmakers for waiting so long."

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