Beth Lewis, the executive director of Save Our Schools AZ, and high school teacher Rodrigo Palacios both spoke at a June 15, 2022, press conference opposing an expansion of the state’s school voucher program. Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror
A proposal to let all 1.1 million Arizona students get taxpayer dollars to attend private school cleared a state legislative committee on Wednesday with Republican support, but it won’t have the votes needed to win approval in the full House of Representatives.
And even if GOP leaders are able to wrangle the votes needed, public education advocates say they’ll ensure voters get the final say on the idea in 2024 — much as they did in 2018, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expansion to the Empowerment Scholarship Account program that Republican legislators passed the prior year.
“These vouchers are a grift. These vouchers are a scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy,” Beth Lewis, the executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, a group that was formed to fight expansions to the ESA program, told the House Ways and Means Committee.
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Save Our Schools Arizona said Wednesday that it was committed to referring this year’s ESA expansion to the ballot if lawmakers approve it.
Currently, only certain students qualify for an ESA voucher. The program was created to help special needs students, but has since been incrementally expanded to include children attending failing public schools, children whose parents are in the military, kids who are in the foster care system and students living on Native American reservations.
There are currently 11,775 students in the ESA program. Those students each receive 90% of what the state would have given to the school district or charter school for the student, and that money can be spent on everything from private school tuition to tutoring to homeschooling materials.
House Bill 2853 would allow every Arizona student to get an ESA account. And because a cap on participation expired in 2020, there would be no limit to the number of students who could take the voucher money to enroll in a private school, though legislative budget analysts estimate only 25,000 students would likely do so.
Rep. Ben Toma, a Peoria Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said there’s a philosophical difference between school-choice advocates and public school advocates over whether the government or parents should decide where a student goes to school.
“It’s not about private versus public education. It’s about parents getting a choice … for that particular child,” he said.
And that means the state should foot the bill for sending a child to private school if that’s what the parent thinks is best, Toma said.
Accountability for parents, but not for taxpayers
But critics said the beneficiaries of the expansion will be wealthy parents who don’t already qualify for ESAs and private school operators, while taxpayers will be left not knowing if the money is being well-spent or if there are any educational gains.
“Private schools are going to be raking in hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars … and there won’t be any accountability,” Lewis said.
The bill includes a provision requiring the students that would be newly eligible to take a national standardized test every year, which Toma and other proponents said was intended to provide accountability.
But those test scores would largely be kept secret: The aggregate scores at a school would only be provided to ESA parents who ask, and only if the school has at least 50 students attending with ESA funds.
The state would not be able to see those scores, which was a sticking point for many Democrats on the panel.
“It’s totally unaccountable,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley. She noted that not only would the state not have a way to see if student achievement improves for ESA recipients, but the law doesn’t require students be taught to the same standards as exist in public schools.
ESAs should only go to schools that can show their students are learning academics at or above grade level. Without this type of academic accountability there will be schools that open, market aggressively, and don't teach the academics they're being paid to teach.
– Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa
That lack of accountability is likely to be what blocks the bill from garnering the support it needs in the full House. Three Republican lawmakers — Joel John, Joanne Osborne and Michelle Udall — have blocked ESA expansions in the past and said they would only change their positions if stricter accountability measures are added to the law.
Osborne is a cosponsor of HB2853, indicating she feels the standardized testing provision is adequate accountability. (She did not return requests for comment.) But neither John nor Udall signed on to introduce the bill, and Udall told the Arizona Mirror that she remains opposed.
She said that the testing provision is too weak and “will not prevent bad actors from taking advantage of children and parents.”
Instead of requiring parents to test their children and keeping the results secret, Udall said private schools that accept ESA students need to test all their students and report their scores to the state.
“ESAs should only go to schools that can show their students are learning academics at or above grade level,” she said. “Without this type of academic accountability there will be schools that open, market aggressively, and don’t teach the academics they’re being paid to teach.”
Udall, a teacher in Mesa, likened it to “the early days of charter schools,” but with virtually no oversight or regulation. That, she said, will lead to profiteering at the expense of students and parents — and taxpayers.
Toma said that providing test scores to parents was sufficient, as they would in turn hold the schools accountable.
What about rural students?
Democrats also said the expansion would overwhelmingly help students in urban areas at the expense of students in rural Arizona, where there are few, if any, private schools.
An Arizona Mirror analysis of ESA participation data published by the Arizona Department of Education shows that more than three-fourths of ESA students — about 76% — live in either Maricopa or Pima counties. More than 58% of the students live in Maricopa while almost 18% live in Pima.
In rural counties, relatively few students use ESAs: Coconino, Graham, La Paz, Mohave and Santa Cruz counties combined to account for about 1.4% of all ESA students.
Even in large swaths of Maricopa County, particularly in lower socio-economic areas, there are few private schools. Marisol Garcia, the incoming president of the Arizona Education Association and a middle school teacher in Phoenix’s Isaac Elementary School District, said she has seen her students recruited to sign up for ESAs, only for the parents to realize there weren’t any private schools willing to take their students.
And that’s another problem, Lewis said: The ultimate choice for ESAs isn’t for the parents or the students, but for the private schools, who can decide who to admit and who to reject.
These vouchers are a grift. These vouchers are a scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy.
– Beth Lewis, Save Our Schools AZ
The ESA expansion comes amid the backdrop of a historic budget surplus — an estimated $5.3 billion, or about 40% of the current year’s spending. At a press conference before the legislative hearing, Lewis lamented that Republican legislators have no desire to use that money to make the public school system better and would instead prefer to take that money away to use for vouchers.
“This budget could have been a record-setting success that would help families all across Arizona — if we had a legislature that cared about Arizona kids and families,” she said. “But we don’t.”
The bill passed the committee on a 6-4 party-line vote, as did a companion measure that would add $400 million to K-12 funding — about half of it in a one-time boost — but only if the ESA expansion becomes law. Toma said the second bill was “an incentive” to mollify ESA opponents, but they were uninterested.
“An incentive for what? Who’s being incentivized?” wondered Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe.
Toma recognized that the attempt was unlikely to win over ESA opponents.
“The voters will get a chance, no doubt, to weigh in on this in the future,” he said.
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