PHOENIX — Four years after voters rejected a similar plan, Republican lawmakers are moving forward with a plan to allow any of the 1.1 million public school students to get vouchers for attend private and parochial schools.
And they are holding hostage a plan to increase aid to public schools until they get what they want.
HB 2853, approved by the House Ways and Means Committee on a 6-4 party line vote on Wednesday, would remove all restrictions on who can get so-called empowerment scholarship accounts. .
Funders say this allows parents to decide which option is best for their children.
This claim was disputed by Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools.
She said unlike public schools, private schools can choose who they want to accept. And Lewis said these schools, many of which are for-profit corporations, accept those who will cost them the least, which is top performers and students who don’t have special needs.
Republicans said they are not ignoring the needs of public schools, voting on Wednesday for HB 2854 that would increase state aid for schools by $400 million, above the additional $250 million already planned. .
But there is less than it seems.
First, only half of this extra money is permanent.
And it’s weighted so that districts with more high-need students get more.
Beyond that, schools would have to wait until the 2023-2024 school year for the one-time injection of $200 million.
And there is something else.
House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who crafted the two measures, included a kind of “poison pill”: He says if vouchers don’t become law, public schools get no of that $400 million.
This is designed to deter the education community from doing to HB 2853 what it did to a similar voucher expansion measure approved by GOP lawmakers in 2017.
They collected enough signatures to put the expansion on the 2018 ballot. And voters rejected the legislation by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Toma has made no secret of his desire to use the additional K-12 education funds as leverage for the vouchers.
“There should be incentives for everyone to support school choice,” he said.
“Feels like we’re being held hostage by the expansion of the vouchers,” Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, replied.
And Lewis told Capitol Media Services that supporters of public education would not be discouraged, vowing to go to the polls again if the Republican-controlled Legislature approves the universal vouchers. She said that would mean the loss of $400 million — or, in fact, $200 million in ongoing funds — which is nowhere near the amount public schools need in Arizona.
She pointed out that in 2020, voters approved Proposition 208 to pump nearly $1 billion more into public education. This was overruled after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the tax could not be levied because it ran up against a constitutional limit on education spending.
Lewis, the education community and their Democratic allies aren’t the only ones saying schools need more than HB 2854 provides.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said he expects something close to that $1 billion figure. And with just 16 Republicans in the 30-member Senate, the plan cannot gain final approval without his vote.
Wednesday’s votes come as school districts won a significant legal victory, with a judge declaring they have the right to pursue claims that the legislature cut billions of dollars from them. See related story.
The voucher legislation is the culmination of what began as a small program in 2011 to help parents of children with disabilities.
Courts in Arizona have upheld the program’s legality, saying that having parents decide where to spend the money means it does not violate constitutional provisions against state aid to private or parochial schools.
It provides the equivalent of 90% of what the state would pay to send the same child to a public school, although HB 2853 contains provisions that would actually increase this beyond public school aid.
It has since been expanded to now cover foster children, reserve residents and pupils attending D or F graded schools.
All of these conditions would disappear under HB 2853.
It is unclear how many would leave public schools.
The latest figures show 11,775 students earning these vouchers, with an average reward of $15,225.
This figure, however, includes students with special needs who receive more money, with the bulk of the vouchers being between $6,000 and $7,000 per year.
Proponents say legislative budget staffers estimate that only between 25,000 and 30,000 more students will go to private or parochial schools.
Haters say some of them charge far more tuition than the size of the voucher, meaning only parents who can afford the difference can take advantage of state funds.
Jill Humphreys, who serves on the Gilbert Unified School District board of trustees, said one problem with vouchers is lack of accountability.
Toma agreed to put provisions in the bill — the first for the vouchers — to require students in private or parochial schools with more than 50 students to take some sort of standardized test to measure academic progress.
But unlike tests administered to public school students, these results will only be made available to each child’s parent. Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said more transparency is needed to determine whether public funds are being properly spent.
Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, said public knowledge about the performance of voucher-funded students is irrelevant.
“You talk about accountability,” she said. “But parents ultimately hold schools accountable by either keeping their kids somewhere or pulling them out.”
The voucher expansion plan has won the support of Jeff Blake, superintendent of the Phoenix Christian Preparatory School. He said vouchers aren’t just used by the wealthy, telling lawmakers that about 55% of college students qualify for free or discounted lunches under federal programs.
Epstein, however, said that still leaves the question of why state taxpayers should fund the religious education that is part of the curriculum there and at other parochial schools. Blake said he had no problem with it.
“This program would greatly open up the possibility for families to operate according to their beliefs in the best interests of their child,” Blake said. “And we are committed to doing so.”
Toma also said the 2018 public vote rejecting the voucher expansion was irrelevant to this new push, saying it was a “wrong suggestion” and a “flawed solution” that doesn’t did not provide universal vouchers.
And Drew Anderson, senior pastor of the voucher-supporting Legacy Christian Center, said it doesn’t matter what voters said in 2018.
“That was ages ago,” he said, saying a lot can change in four years.
“In 2016, the State of Arizona voted for Donald Trump,” he said. “Fast forward to 2020, Donald Trump didn’t win Arizona State.”
The measure is now being sent to the full House where further changes may be needed to win the support of all 31 Republicans. And if approved there, he faces an uncertain future in the Senate, especially with concerns expressed by Boyer.