Less than three months after voters rejected a legislative attempt to broadly expand a controversial school choice program, a Republican senator is hoping lawmakers will approve a narrower expansion for middle-class students.
Senate Bill 1396, sponsored by Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, would increase access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to families at or below 185 percent of the national poverty level.
Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, commonly referred to as ESAs, have been a subject of controversy and scandal, with public education advocates saying it takes money away from public schools.
“Expanding a broken idea is not good government,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, co-founder of Save Our Schools Arizona, told Arizona Mirror.
Around 19 percent of Arizona families live between 100 to 199 percent of the national poverty level, according to 2008 to 2017 Census data. Approximately 218,000 families in Arizona have a household income between $35,000 and $49,999, according to 2017 Census data.
To be at the federal poverty level for a family of four you’d need to be making around $25,000 a year and 185 percent of that would be roughly $46,000. Meaning that any household of four that makes around that amount would qualify for an ESA under the new law if passed.
The median household income for Arizona is around $53,000 a year, according to the most recent census data.
In 2017, lawmakers dramatically expanded the program, which was created to apply to a small segment of Arizona students, to include every child in the state. In response, ESA opponents gathered enough signatures to call a public referendum on the expansion. Last year, Prop. 305, the resulting ballot measure, was defeated with more than 60 percent of Arizona voters rejecting it.
Penich-Thacker said bills like Allen’s are a way to get around the voters.
Allen’s bill is not the only one that could increase ESA access if passed.
House Bill 2474 proposed by Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, would make any child who is an alleged victim of battery, harassment, hazing, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, threatening, intimidation, fighting, sex trafficking or human trafficking eligible for an ESA.
Bolick and others say the bill is a way to give school choice to children who have been victimized.
Save Our Schools Arizona argues it is a way to expand the ESA program and remove more dollars from public schools.
Additionally, Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Tucson, has proposed House Bill 2022 which would move oversight of the ESA program to the Arizona Department of Treasury, something that was a part of the failed Prop 305.
Allen did not respond to a request for comment.
The bill has not been assigned to a committee.