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Arizona Republicans want to let public school students get vouchers to attend private schools

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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Four years after Arizona voters rejected a similar plan, Republican lawmakers are pushing ahead with a plan to let any of the 1.1 million students in public schools get vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.
And they are holding a plan to boost aid to public schools hostage until they get what they want.
HB 2853, approved Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee on a 6-4 party-line vote, would remove all restrictions on who can get what are called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Backers say this ensures that parents get to decide what is the best option for their youngsters.
That assertion was disputed by Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools.
She said that unlike public schools, private schools can pick and choose who they want to accept. And Lewis said those schools, many of which are for-profit corporations, accept those who will cost them the least, meaning the highest achievers and students who do not have special needs.
Republicans said they are not ignoring the needs of public schools, voting Wednesday for HB 2854 which would increase state aid to schools by $400 million, above another $250 million additional already planned.
But there's less there than meets the eye.
First, only half of that additional cash is permanent. And it is weighted so the districts with more students in financial need would get more.
Beyond that, schools would have to wait until the 2023-2024 school year for the one-time $200 million infusion.
And there's something else.
House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who crafted both measures, included a "poison pill'' of sorts: It says that if the vouchers do not become law, the public schools don't get any of that $400 million.
That is designed to deter the education community from doing to HB 2853 what they did to a similar voucher expansion measure approved by GOP lawmakers in 2017.
They collected sufficient signatures to put the expansion on the 2018 ballot. And voters overruled the legislation by a margin of close to 2 to 1.
Toma made no secret of his desire to use the additional funds for K-12 education as leverage for vouchers.
"There should be incentive for everyone to be supportive of school choice,'' he said
"It feels like we're being held hostage to the voucher expansion,'' responded Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley.
And Lewis told Capitol Media Services that supporters of public education won't be deterred, vowing to go to the ballot once again if the Republican-controlled legislature approves universal vouchers. She she said while that would mean the loss of $400 million -- or, really, $200 million of ongoing funds -- that is nowhere near the amount that public schools need in Arizona.
She pointed out that voters in 2020 approved Proposition 208 to infuse another nearly $1 billion into public education. That was sidelined after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the tax could not be levied because it bumped up against a constitutional limit on education spending.
Lewis, the education community and their Democratic allies are not alone in saying schools need more than HB 2854 is offering.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said he is holding out for an amount close to that $1 billion figure. And with only 16 Republicans in the 30-member Senate, the plan cannot get final approval without his vote.
Wednesday's votes come as school districts won a significant legal victory, with a judge saying they are entitled to pursue claims that the legislature shorted them billions of dollars. See related story.
The voucher legislation is the culmination of what started out as a small program in 2011 to help parents of children with disabilities.
Arizona courts upheld the legality of the program, saying the fact that the parents decided where to spend the dollars 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, though HB 2853 contains provisions that actually would boost that beyond public school aid.
Since that time it has been expanded so it now covers foster children, reservation residents and students attending schools rated D or F.
All those conditions would disappear under HB 2853.
How many would move from public schools is unclear.
The latest figures show 11,775 students getting these vouchers, with an average award of $15,225. That figure, however, includes students with special needs who get more money, with the bulk of the vouchers between $6,000 and $7,000 a year.
Proponents say legislative budget staffers estimate that only between 25,000 and 30,000 more students will move to private or parochial schools. Foes say some of them charge far more in tuition than the size of the voucher, meaning only parents who can afford the difference can take advantage of the state funds.
Jill Humphreys who serves on the board of the Gilbert Unified School District said one problem with vouchers is lack of accountability.
Toma did agree to put provisions in the bill -- the first ever for 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 students in public schools, those results will be made available only to each child's parent. Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said there needs to be more transparency to determine if the public funds are being properly spent.
Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, said public knowledge of how voucher-funded students are performing is irrelevant.
"You mention accountability,'' she said. "But parents are, at the end of the day, they're holding schools accountable by either keeping their kids somewhere or removing them.''
The voucher expansion plan drew support from Jeff Blake, superintendent of Phoenix Christian Preparatory School. He said vouchers are not simply being used by the rich, telling lawmakers that about 55% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal programs.
Epstein, however, said that still leaves the question of why state taxpayers should finance the religious education that is part of the curriculum there and at other parochial schools. Blake said he sees no problem with that.
"This program would significantly open up the opportunity for families to operate by their convictions of what is the best interests of their child,'' Blake said. "And we're committed to do that.''
Toma also said that 2018 public vote rejecting voucher expansion is irrelevant to this new push, saying that was a "flawed suggestion'' and "imperfect solution'' that did not provide universal vouchers.
And Drew Anderson, senior pastor of Legacy Christian Center, a supporter of vouchers, said it doesn't really matter what voters said in 2018.
"That was eons ago,'' he said, saying a lot can change in four years.
"In 2016 the state of Arizona voted in favor of Donald Trump,'' he said. "Fast forward to 2020, Donald Trump didn't win the state of Arizona.''
The measure now goes to the full House where there may need to be further changes to pick up the support of all 31 Republicans. And if it gets approved there, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, especially with the concerns expressed by Boyer.
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On Twitter: @azcapmedia