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An ambitious expansion of Arizona’s voucher-style program for K-12 schools passed its first test in the state Senate — but it’s likely destined for defeat in the House of Representatives, where a trio of Republican lawmakers have serious concerns.
Under the Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA, program, parents who pull their children from public schools receive a voucher, which they can use for private school tuition, educational materials, tutoring or other educational goods and services.
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The program was initially open only to students with disabilities when it was created in 2011, but lawmakers have steadily expanded it over the years to include other categories of students, including students who attend failing schools, Native Americans who live on reservations, adoptees and foster children, children of active-duty military members, and siblings of ESA recipients.
Sen. Paul Boyer’s Senate Bill 1657 would add several new categories of qualifying students, including kids who receive free or reduced-price lunches, students whose families receive SNAP benefits, those who attend schools that qualify for federal funding for low-income students, and children whose parents are veterans or health care professionals.
The bill also amends the law to allow parents to spend ESA money on transportation for students, as well as computer hardware and other technological equipment like calculators, tablets, microscopes and printers.
More than 1.1 million students were enrolled in Arizona public schools in the 2020-21 school year. By comparison, there are 10,699 students who were awarded ESAs in the current fiscal year, according to the Arizona Department of Education. If Boyer’s bill becomes law, he said it would add about 25,000 more. Scholarships range from $3,000 to $30,000, the department said, with the average coming in at $15,189 as of September 2021.
The Senate Education Committee approved the bill along partisan lines on Tuesday. And if a vote on a similar measure in 2021 is any indicator, it’s likely to get the full Senate’s stamp of approval.
Things aren’t likely to go as smoothly for expanding ESAs in the House.
Last year, three Republican House members — Joel John, Joanne Osborne and Michelle Udall — joined their Democratic colleagues in voting down a budget amendment that would have dramatically expanded the ESA program. Since then, nothing has changed.
Udall, a Mesa Republican who is running for superintendent of public instruction, said she can’t support ESA expansion without new accountability measures.
Critics of the ESA program have long argued that there’s insufficient oversight of how parents spend the money they receive. Udall, a Mesa Republican who is running for superintendent of public instruction, shares those concerns.
She has also expressed concerns that the program does not track academic achievement data for students who receive ESAs, and has suggested that any expansion needs to be approved by voters, who overwhelmingly rejected a massive expansion law in 2018.
Udall said she hasn’t looked at SB1657 because it’s still in the Senate. But, she said, “I’m opposed to any expansion without accountability.”
John, a Republican from Buckeye, is also concerned about the lack of oversight for ESA spending, and by the disparate way state law treats spending by school districts.
“There needs to be a little parity or a little give-and-take with that, or maybe reduce some of the burdens on the public schools before expansions are continued,” he said.
John said he’d have to take a look at any proposal that trades expansion for new oversight before making any decisions on whether he’d support it. If the school districts he represents approve of any such proposal, John said he would probably support it, as well.
Since before the session began, Udall has been speaking with people about a potential compromise that would go on the 2022 ballot. She’s open to a limited expansion of the ESA program in exchange for more oversight on how the money is spent. She said she hasn’t spoken with Boyer, but has talked with other colleagues who support ESA expansion, though she wouldn’t say who.
“We’ve been talking about accountability that they’re willing to accept. We’ve definitely been talking,” Udall said.
Osborne, R-Goodyear, declined to comment on Boyer’s bill. She told the Arizona Mirror in December that any ESA expansion plans should be approved by the voters, not by the legislature.
GOP lawmakers in 2017 approved expanding the ESA program to all Arizona students. But public school advocates launched a referendum to block the law and put the expansion on the 2018 ballot, where voters resoundingly rejected it.
Boyer didn’t rule out the possibility of putting ESA expansion back on the ballot this year, saying that “every option is on the table at this point.” He isn’t running for re-election and is hoping to pass an expansion plan in his last session at the legislature.
The other concerns may be harder to address to the Republican holdouts’ satisfaction. Boyer is staunchly opposed to any academic achievement measurement that would require private schools to administer standardized tests. Nor does he want to impose any such mandate on homeschool families and other parents and students who use the ESA program. Even if adding that kind of requirement got him a few Republican votes, he would lose 99% of the rest of his Republican caucus, he said.
High school graduation and college attendance are far better yardsticks to measure academic success, Boyer said. And, ultimately, parents are the ones who decide what’s best for their children.
“They’re not going to put their kid in a failing private school or a failing homeschool or a failing microschool. They’re going to find what’s best for their kid. So, ultimately, I think parents should decide what determines their child’s success or not,” Boyer said.
As for accountability for ESA spending, Boyer believes the oversight provided by the Auditor General’s Office and Department of Education are sufficient.
“They look at every single receipt to make sure that it’s spent accordingly,” he said.
Nonetheless, Boyer is still hopeful that an agreement can be reached this session.
“Obviously, I ran it because I still think there’s an opportunity,” Boyer said.
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