PHOENIX - School choice has been a hot topic in Arizona, as the state's legislature passed the biggest school voucher plan in the country in recent months.
"These kids are trapped in failing public schools," said Gov. Ducey. "It's time to set these families free."
Here's what you should know about the bill, as well as its impact on Arizona schools and students.
What is HB 2853?
HB 2853 was proposed by House Majority Leader Ben Toma, a Republican who represents the state's 22nd Legislative District, which covers a portion of the northwest Valley, as well as a portion of northern Maricopa County.
According to an Associated Press article, HB 2853 gives all Arizona parents the ability to take state money that would go to their local public school, and instead use it for private school tuition or other educational costs.
A universal school voucher expansion, according to the AP, has been a key goal during Gov. Ducey's eight years in office. Due to term limits, he is ineligible to run for another term in this year's gubernatorial election.
Why does it sound so familiar?
According to the AP, voters in Arizona rejected a similar plan during the 2018 elections.
That year, the issue of universal school vouchers was the topic for Proposition 305, which, according to that year's official election results, was rejected when around 1.58 million voters voted ‘no.'
The AP article on the ballot measure's defeat noted that opponents of Proposition 305 also benefited from a division amongst parents whose children were, under the rules at the time, eligible for the vouchers, with some fearing that opening up eligibility to all could leave insufficient funds and openings for those with special needs.
The AP also noted that the signature-gathering process to put Proposition 305 on the ballot, as well as the subsequent anti-school voucher campaign, had ripple effects, in that it led to the Red for Ed teacher movement in Arizona, as well as a teacher strike.
When did Arizona first start giving out school vouchers?
According to the group, Arizona Center for Economic Progress, the use of state dollars to pay for private education began in 2011, when the Arizona State Legislature created Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
Initially, officials with the group say the program's intention was to expand educational opportunities outside of public school settings for students with disabilities. Gradually, however, more categories of students were added.
How are ESAs funded?
According to officials with the Arizona Department of Education, ESAs are funded by state tax dollars, consisting of 90% of state funding that would have otherwise been allocated to the school district or charter school for the qualified student, excluding any federal or local funding.
The amount, per student, could be $7,000.
What students are covered by ESAs, prior to the school voucher expansion?
On the Arizona Department of Education's website, students who meet any of the following requirements were deemed as qualified for an ESA:
- Preschool students with special needs
- K-12 students with special needs
- Children of active-duty military parent
- Children of a military parent killed in the line of duty
- Children of parent who is legally blind, deaf or hard of hearing
- Students attending a D-rated or F-rated school
- Students residing within a Native American Reservation
- Siblings of current or previous ESA recipient
- Student who was a ward of the court
- Previous ESA recipients
What can ESA funds be used for?
A parent handbook for the ESA program lists a number of approved spending categories for all students, including:
- Tuition, fees and required textbooks at a qualified school
- Tutoring services
- Tuition or fees for non-public online learning program
- Fees for "nationally standardized norm-referenced achievement tests and grade level testing:
- Account fees
- Services provided by a public school
Students with an ESA who have a disability, according to the handbook, have additional categories of approved spending, but they need to provide additional documentation.
What will the ESA expansion do?
The AP states that under the new law, an estimated 60,000 private students and about 38,000 homeschool students would immediately be eligible to take up to $7,000 per year. Some of this currently get vouchers, and many already get money from groups like School Tuition Organizations that funnel tax credits to students.
All 1.1 million students who attend traditional district and charter schools would also qualify to leave their public schools and get money to go to private schools. Currently, about a third already qualify, but only about 12,000 students statewide now use the system.
What are school voucher proponents saying about ESAs?
The Arizona Secretary of State's website contains documents with arguments for and against Proposition 305 in 2018.
In the document containing pro-Prop 305 arguments, a number of comments were listed as being sponsored by the Goldwater Institute or the Center for Arizona Policy. The AP has listed both the Goldwater Institute and the Center for Arizona Policy as conservative organizations.
One of the comments not lasted as being sponsored by either the Goldwater Institute or the Center for Arizona Policy came from the Bishops of the Arizona Catholic Conference.
"Proposition 305 is a modest effort to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to help parents, especially those with limited resources, make the best educational choices for their children. When parents have more quality choices, it makes our educational system better and we all win," the comment reads, in part.
On Aug. 16, a supporter of ESAs talked about why they support the program.
"Kids deserve to be in the education environment that they can thrive in, but so many families have been limited by their income and their ZIP code," said parent Annie Mead. "The Empowerment Scholarship Account program was something that I learned about from other friends who had qualified, but unfortunately, our family never had access to this scholarship until now."
What are school voucher opponents saying about ESAs?
Like the document containing pro-Prop 305 arguments, the document with anti-Prop 305 arguments contains a number of comments that were listed as being sponsored.
Opponents of the measure detailed concerns over whether an expansion of the ESA program would work.
"There is a fallacy in the logic that what has worked for our small group will simply benefit more groups when expanded to everyone. Our specific benefits will be significantly diluted by the addition of a much larger population. Basically, our children will again be placed at the back of the line," read a comment submitted by Susan Edwards of Tempe.
Some opponents of the 2018 measure also detailed their concerns over how ESA monies are spent.
"ESA vouchers will divert tax revenue to subsidize private school tuition. The cost of tuition at most private schools is considerably higher than the value of a voucher. Wealthy families, who can afford the balance, will be the primary beneficiaries of ESA vouchers, at taxpayers’ expense," read a comment by Mary Daly of Green Valley.
On Aug. 16, Beth Lewis, Executive Director for Save our Schools Arizona, spoke about the ESA's impact on public school funding.
:Arizona’s schools are already desperately underfunded, and you know, unfortunately, this sort of massive siphoning of money would probably amount to about a 20% cut across the board, and I don’t know a single school that could withstand that kind of funding cut," said Lewis.
Are there efforts to put the issue on the ballot, as they did in 2018?
Lewis said her group is collecting signatures to block the bill until the next general election, in November.
The group has until September to gather at least 119,000 valid signatures.
"Arizona voters already rejected it by a two-to-one margin," said Lewis. "We are just trying to let the voters have a final say."
Gov. Ducey, during an event on Aug. 16, criticized opponents of school vouchers for their efforts to put their issue on the ballot.
"Misguided special interest groups will try to tell you that this legislation will diminish our public education system," he said. "They couldn’t be more wrong. Public education means educating the public."
On Sept. 23, supporters of an effort to stop the universal voucher program turned in signatures of a petition that aims to place the measure on the ballot. They needed just south of 119,000, and supporters say they gathered over 140,000.
The signatures were wheeled into the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, where the signatures, which came from all 15 of Arizona's counties, will be counted and verified.
If the signatures turned in on Sept. 23 meet qualifications, the voucher program will remain blocked until voters weigh in, in 2024.
The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.