Public school advocates hold signs 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 use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private school was signed into law Thursday, but opponents are aiming to let voters decide whether it ever goes into effect.
The Empowerment Scholarship Account program, commonly referred to as ESAs, has been narrowly implemented since its creation in 2011. Eligible students 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. Currently, roughly 11,800 students are enrolled and receive the voucher money.
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But House Bill 2853, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed on July 7, allows every Arizona student to get an ESA account — including those who already attend private schools — to pay for their education.
The bill was at the center of budget negotiations: Republican critics of the proposal who had defeated previous efforts voted for it in exchange for about $800 million in new funding for public education.
“Arizona has long led the nation in embracing school choice, and this builds on those policies,” Ducey said in a letter he issued after signing the bill. “The State of Arizona trusts parents to choose what works best to unlock their student’s greatest potential.”
Legislative budget analysts have said that only an estimated 25,000 students would likely take advantage of the expanded eligibility. About 11,000 use it currently, and critics have said that many of the new enrollees are likely to be from affluent families who already send their children to private schools.
ESA dollars can be spent on anything a student needs, from tuition for a private school to tutoring or to homeschooling materials.
Save Our Schools Arizona hopes to block the expansion from ever going into effect, and has launched a referendum campaign to repeal what lawmakers approved. If the group can collect more than 118,000 signatures by Sept. 24, the ESA expansion wouldn’t go into effect unless voters approve it in 2024.
Ducey waited until July 7, the final day he was allowed to act on legislation from the 2022 session, to sign the bill. Doing so means Save Our Schools Arizona has 10 fewer days to gather the signatures needed.
In 2017, Save Our Schools Arizona successfully referred a different ESA expansion to the ballot, and voters in 2018 overwhelmingly rejected the voucher program.
“We the people will not be dismissed. We will not allow our public education system to be destroyed in front of our eyes via universal ESA voucher expansion,” said SOSAZ PAC Chair Raquel Mamani in a press release announcing the referendum campaign. “Public education has lost a battle, but by no means the war. Thousands of volunteers, parents, and educators in every corner of the state will fight back, and we will win.”
The bill’s sponsor, Peoria Republican Ben Toma, celebrated the bill’s signing Thursday.
“Many doubted that we could expand ESA eligibility to all of Arizona’s K-12 students, especially with razor thin majorities in the legislature,” Toma said, referencing the Republicans in the House and Senate who had initially spoken out against the bill. “I couldn’t be prouder that House Republicans stood united to pass the first truly universal ESA program in the nation and deliver educational freedom to more than 1.1 million students.”
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