Arizona Republican lawmakers approve private school vouchers
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Rejecting claims of segregation and favoring the rich, Arizona Republican lawmakers late Friday gave final approval to the most comprehensive system of vouchers of taxpayer funds for private and parochial schools in the nation.
The 16-10 Senate vote came as proponents said parents want more choice for their children. Sen. Vince Leach from SaddleBrooke said schools in his district, which includes parts of Pima and Pinal counties, are "hemorrhaging kids.''
"This is not over one year, this is not over a COVID year,'' he told colleagues, but over the past five years.
"They're leaving because parents are making a decision,'' said Leach, as schools spend less time teaching basics and more time on things like Common Core standards "when 2 plus 2 equals anything but 4 and parents can't help their kids with simple basic math problems.'' On top of that. he said, are programs like structured English immersion and what's been called "critical race theory.''
And the charter schools in his district, Leach said, public schools that are privately owned and operated, are all full.
"What does that tell you about the government schools?'' he asked.
The solution that Republicans say HB 2853 offers is to allow each of the 1.1 million students in Arizona public schools to get a voucher they can use to attend a private or parochial school.
But Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said there's a reason for the loss of students.
"We created the crisis,'' he said, by not properly funding public schools. "And we are at fault for people wanting to look for other choices.''
And what's worse, he said, is that the people who have been able to afford the cost of private school already have their kids there.
"Now we've just handed them a check for $7,000 for each one of their kids,'' said Quezada. Legislative budget staffers figure that the cost of giving vouchers to parents of kids already in those private schools will cost the state about $125 million a year by the 2024-2025 school year, meaning even less money for public schools.
"We are perpetuating the discrimination, we are perpetuating the inequity, we are in fact codifying the segregation of our schools,'' Quezada said.
The vote came after Republicans used a procedural maneuver to block any attempt by Democrats to propose amendments, skipping the normally required floor debate and instead allowing only an up-or-down roll call. That denied Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, the opportunity to seek votes on some suggestions she said would make the plan to use public funds to send children to private schools a little more acceptable.
For example, she wanted students using those public funds to be tested annually to see if they are making academic progress.
Supporters of vouchers, however, say such public reporting is unnecessary.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said the nature of providing resources to parents to make education choices necessarily makes them more involved in their child's education as they have the resources to choose a school.
"Remember: this is for whatever the parent thinks is best for their kid,'' he said. "And, for the life of me, I still can't fathom why anybody would oppose that.''
But Marsh, who is a teacher, said it's about more than testing. She said that given the use of taxpayer dollars there also should be requirements for minimum qualifications of teachers, fingerprinting of employees and volunteers who work directly with students as has to occur in public schools, and data on the income of families who are taking the vouchers.
"Do we have a vast majority who are truly needy, in poverty, earning whatever, $30,000 a year, and how many of them are there, versus how many families are accepting this money who are making $500,000 or $1 million a year or $2 million a year?'' she asked. "We don't have any way of knowing that.''
Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he does not believe there will be a "mass exodus'' of kids from public schools, even with an offer of $7,000 vouchers.
"What I do believe will happen, however, is an opportunity will be given to students who may want to go to that private school, may want to attend a school that is out of their reach to do,'' he said. "Frankly I think that's something we should all be very encouraging of if they're desirous to do so.''
Marsh, however, said that option for choice might be well and good if there were a level playing field. But she said that's not the case.
"Public schools have to educate everyone,'' Marsh said.
"We educate every kid no matter what the cognitive ability or disability might be, no matter what the physical ability or disability might be,'' she said. And Marsh pointed out that public schools can be required to educate certain students through the age of 22.
"That is not the case with private schools,'' she said, who are free to decide who to take -- and who to reject, a process some call cherry picking those who will be the easiest to teach and most academically advanced.
Boyer, however, said it is misleading to say the dollars go only for private and parochial schools. He said parents can also use it to put their children in "micro schools'' they set up set up by parents or even home schooling.
The measure, which already has been approved by the House, now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey who has signed every voucher expansion bill that has reached his desk since taking office in 2015.
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