Arizona families who choose not to send their child to public school have the option of receiving an estimated $7,000 debit card for education expenses.
Arizona, United States — Arizona Republican lawmakers made history Friday night by passing universal law Invoice for school vouchers that drew celebration and anger.
The conservative Goldwater Institute called the bill “a major victory for families who fear a one-size-fits-all approach to education.” The Arizona Education Association warned that the program will create a parallel education structure that will drain public schools.
Republicans switch positions
The voucher law would mean that all Arizona families who do not send their child to public school have the option of receiving an estimated $7,000 debit card for education expenses. The money that would otherwise go to public education can be spent on private school tuition or other costs associated with alternative schooling for that particular child.
“Not just for private schools. So does micro-education, homeschooling, educational therapy and tutoring,” said State Senator Paul Boyer (R), who previously said he was reluctant to vote for a universal voucher bill. Boyer joined all Republicans Friday night to vote yes, putting the bill over the top.
“I’ve always supported empowerment grant accounts,” Boyer said, explaining his yes vote. “I voted for it because it includes Title 1 students, which is very close to my heart. Based on the poll, I think voters will support it.”
Boyer, a school teacher, was one of several Republican lawmakers who previously had concerns about the program over its sprawl and lack of accountability. But in recent weeks they have changed their position and supported the measure.
One reason for the switch was that lawmakers added more than $1 billion to public schools’ annual baseline receipts in 2023 and an ongoing infusion of $526 million. Funding is dependent on lawmakers raising the overall spending limit next year, which it did earlier this year.
No academic or financial accountability measures
Boyer cited a February Public Opinion Strategies survey This suggests that 65% of Arizonans surveyed allow all K-12 students access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). But Arizona residents have opposed universal coupons in the past, and voters easily rejected a similar proposal by 65% to 35% at the ballot box in 2018.
State Senator Christine Marsh (D) on Friday tried unsuccessfully to add amendments to the bill that would have required private schools to accept students with vouchers to administer tests on academic standards, require the release of staff fingerprints, and record family demographics lead that use the voucher money.
“We don’t have financial transparency and we don’t have academic transparency,” Marsh said. “I would like to know how many families that make maybe $1 million a year get coupon money versus how many families that make maybe $30 or $40,000 a year get coupon money.”
Senators Christine Marsh (D) and Paul Boyer (R) discuss the universal voucher debate.
Rebekah GauManaging Director of Stand For Children tells 12 News that she believes the mood among Arizona voters hasn’t changed. Gau cited a May poll by Alloy Analytics that suggested only 30% of voters polled support full ESA vouchers.
“It’s really worrying that the money is going to families who don’t need it,” Gau said. “It just seems counterintuitive to the goals of the state to have a constitutionally mandated education system, and the goal is to create a strong economy and strong schools, and yet we’re going to be throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at totally irresponsible organizations.”
Learn more from Rebecca Gau, Executive Director of Stand for Children Arizona.
The bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Ben Toma, said parents would accept the required level of accountability.
“They know what is best for their children and we should trust them to do the right thing,” Toma said.
How Will Universal Coupons Affect Public Schools?
It is unclear what effects the voucher program will have on the state education budget. Around 11,800 students are currently enrolled in the ESA program and receive voucher money.
According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, about 30,000 to 40,000 students in private schools and home schooling would be eligible for universal vouchers, at a cost to the state over $180 million. This money would be taken from the general fund, not the education budget. However, if a student changes from a public school to a private school in the future, this money would come from the general education fund.
“The biggest concern is that this will drain public education funding,” said Brenden Foland, director of government relations at the AEA.
A statement released by the Goldwater Institute argues that the program will not hurt public schools because the ESA program costs about $6,400 for a typical student, compared to the more than $11,000 that state and local taxpayers pay for each public school students.
“The ESA program simply ensures that each student’s funding follows the student, as it already does each time a student leaves one public school for another public school, by utilizing the state’s open enrollment option.” , the statement said.
We will subsidize the wealthy?
Gau says there are questions about how universal vouchers affect “what we think about education reform and fair play.”
“If we are talking about solving educational problems in Arizona, there is such a great need in Arizona for the future workforce that is mostly low-income families. It’s contrary to the needs of the state if you give the amount of money to families who don’t need it,” Gau said.
Randy Parraz, executive director of the AEA, said the program will “subsidize the affluent who can already afford private schooling” while the lower-income community schools “still starve for resources.”
Opponents of the bill have the option of launching a referendum campaign to get the measure on the ballot. If they collect enough signatures within the next three months, the program would not go ahead unless voters approved it in 2024.
“A lot of ideas are being considered at this point, but as far as a plan, there is no plan yet. But it’s all on the table,” Parraz said.
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