Arizona governor faces universal school voucher challenge

Phoenix – A massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system awaits long-awaited signatures from Republican Gov. Doug Ducey as he faces a Thursday deadline and a pledged effort by public school advocates to block the bill he supports and ask voters to clear it in the November election.

The expansion Ducey is certain to sign will allow every parent in Arizona to take public money now being sent to the K-12 public school system and use it to pay for their children’s tuition in private schools or colleges. other education costs.

An estimated 60,000 current private students and about 38,000 home-schoolers would be immediately eligible to take up $7,000 a year, though a small number currently get vouchers. The 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. About a third are already eligible, but only about 12,000 students statewide now use the system.

Arizona has the most extensive education options in the nation, and Ducey has championed “school choice” during his eight years in office. He signed a universal voucher expansion in 2017 with enrollment caps that were voted out by a grassroots group called Save Our Schools Arizona.

Voters firmly rejected the expansion by a 2-1 vote in the 2018 election, but proponents of what are officially called “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” still advanced with new expansions. The universal bond bill passed with the sole support of majority Republican lawmakers in the legislative session that ended early on June 25.

Save Our Schools Arizona executive director Beth Lewis said her group would immediately call for the law to be put back to the ballot under a provision of the Arizona Constitution that allows opponents of new laws to collect the signatures of 5% of eligible voters and block them until the next. general election.

In this case, they will need to collect nearly 119,000 valid signatures, and promoters typically add a 25% cushion. They must collect them and turn them over to the Secretary of State by the end of September to prevent the law from going into effect and putting it on the ballot in November.

“I’m confident we’ll be able to reference HB2853,” Lewis said in an interview. “Our network of volunteers across the state is motivated and ready.”

Lewis and other public school advocates say the vouchers take money from an already underfunded public school system, while supporters say the program allows parents to choose the best education for their children.

Lewis said the price of the new voucher law could fetch more than new school funding lawmakers added this year, which was about $1 billion in ongoing and one-time cash.

“In a nutshell, this bill will siphon more than $1 billion from public schools each year into unaccountable private academies, micro schools and home schools,” Lewis said. . “And we just can’t let that happen.”

Many students in the voucher program are disabled. Adding in current private and home-schooled students, she said $400 million to $600 million would “go through the window like overnight, with automatic eligibility on September 26.”

Legislature budget analysts have estimated expansion costs much lower, at $125 million over two years, but acknowledge that the numbers are highly speculative and based on new costs, not losses from public schools. Many private school students receive money from a tax credit program, but those payments are on average much lower than vouchers, so many are subject to change.

Ducey has been touting the expansion on social media over the past two weeks. He said in an interview with KTAR radio on Wednesday that the measure would put parents in charge of their children’s education.

“Now parents will have access to (up to) $7,000 to educate their child, whether it’s a tutor, a textbook, tuition, whatever is in the interest of the child,” he told KTAR’s Mike Broomhead. “We are the No. 1 state in the country for this freedom of education, other states will follow us.

“And that’s a way to really reform K-12 education to focus on math, reading, science. American civics, character building,” Ducey said. “It’s all there and Arizona is going to lead the nation.”

The voucher law contains no liability provisions like the tests a few Republicans had called for. Monitoring of distributed funds is also limited.

The program only applied to students with disabilities when it began in 2011, but has expanded significantly over the years to cover many others, including students living on Native American reservations, attending underperforming public schools and other groups.

Parents receive 90% of the public funds that normally go to their local public school to use for private school tuition and other education costs. Students with disabilities can receive up to $40,000 for specialized therapy.

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