GOP bill expanding vouchers to out-of-state schools clears committee




    Photo courtesy U.S. Army

    Native American students would be allowed to use taxpayer dollars to pay for tuition at schools in other states, as long as the school is located within two miles of the Arizona border, under legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee.

    Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from Snowflake, said she sponsored Senate Bill 1224 so that 10 Native American students could use the state’s school voucher program, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, to pay for a private religious school in New Mexico. 

    In 2019, the parents of the 10 students were asked to repay the tuition costs because state law didn’t allow the ESA money to be spent at an out-of-state school. 

    But an agreement between the Arizona Department of Education and state legislators allowed them to remain using their ESAs until July 2020, before having to move their kids back to an in-state school.

    Allen’s legislation seeks to make that temporary fix permanent.

    “I believe that parents are responsible for the education of their children and that parents know their children better than anybody else … and they should have the ability to make those choices, and that’s what ESA does for our children,” Allen said.

    The bill has sparked strong opposition from opponents of expanding the voucher system like Save our Schools Arizona, which said the money should be invested toward improving Arizona’s public schools rather than directing tax dollars to neighboring states. 

    “No Arizona student should have to leave the state for a great education, and no Arizona taxpayer should have to subsidize schools in other states,” the group said in a statement. 

    The legislative Indigenous Peoples Caucus also released a statement opposing the measure, and said that the bill would be the beginning of a voucher expansion that would violate the will of voters, who in 2018 overwhelmingly rejected a GOP-backed attempt to expand ESAs to every student in Arizona. 

    “Native Americans have been taken advantage of for centuries, so we know it when we see it, and we won’t stand for it,” said Sen. Victoria Steele, a member of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus. “We won’t let this effort, led by a D.C. special interest group, use our Native children as pawns in their anti-public education agenda.”

    Despite a room filled with people opposing the bill and feisty disagreements from the crowd, Republicans on the panel insisted that it would not expand vouchers and that it’s only aim is to help these few students. 

    Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said it’s not his intent to expand ESAs and he supports this bill in order to give the 10 Navajo students in question the education they deserve. 

    “Our kids should be the highest priority … they are our most valuable asset,” Gray said. “They are our future. If that’s not the priority, then I think we’re screwed. Our kids are screwed.”

    But Sen. Andrea Dalessandro shot back at the Republicans and said that the number of interest groups involved shows that it’s not just about 10 students. 

    “If this were about 10 students, some of the out-of-state interest would not be here. This is a slippery slope,” the Green Valley Democrat said.

    Gov. Doug Ducey said last year that he would sign a bill that would permanently allow Navajo Nation kids to attend the school of their choice. 

    The bill passed 6-3 on a party-line vote.

    The bill has to pass the full Senate and House before it reaches Ducey’s desk.

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    Wissam Melhem is a journalism and political science senior at Arizona State University. He was a Washington, D.C., correspondent for Cronkite News at Arizona PBS and a political reporter for State Press. He hopes to one day have a career covering national elections and the U.S Congress.