A proposal to allow all 1.1 million Arizona students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend a private school passed the Arizona House of Representatives on Wednesday after two Republicans who opposed previous efforts to expand the program had changed their position.
The Empowerment Scholarship Account program, commonly referred to as ESAs, has been rigorously implemented since its inception in 2011. Eligible students include children attending poor public schools, children whose parents are in the military, children who are in the foster care system, and living students through Native American reservations. Around 11,800 students are currently enrolled and are receiving the voucher money.
but House bill 2853 would allow every Arizona student to get an ESA account — including those already attending private schools — to pay for their education.
GET THE TOMORROW HEADLINES IN YOUR INBOX
Legislative budget analysts have said only an estimated 25,000 students would likely take advantage of the expanded eligibility.
ESA dollars can be spent on anything a student needs, from private school tutoring to tutoring to homeschooling materials.
“If you’re a millionaire or billionaire and your child goes to private school today, get a check to subsidize them now,” said Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen. “We have one of these lowest per-student grant conditions in this country and we have decided to make it worse by taking more funds from our general fund.”
Voters could have the final say on the fate of HB2853: Save Our Schools Arizona has announced it will launch a referendum campaign to overturn the expansion if it becomes law. If the group can gather enough signatures within 90 days of the end of the legislature, the ESA expansion would not go into effect unless voters approved it in 2024.
“The House’s passage of voter-rejected universal ESA vouchers underscores the Republican majority’s utter disregard for AZ voters.” Beth Lewis, the executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, a group formed to fight expansion of the ESA program, said in a statement to the mirror. “They are bought and sold by special interests who don’t care about the interests of our children.”
In 2017, Save Our Schools Arizona successfully referred another ESA expansion to the vote, and voters in 2018 overwhelmingly rejected the voucher program.
The bill passed the House of Representatives 31-26 with support only from Republicans. It now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to be passed. Gov. Doug Ducey, who has campaigned for ESAs and other school election measures, would then decide whether it becomes law.
Before hearing the bill, the ground meeting was considered delayed Last minute rule change was debated among members, who limited debate on each bill to 30 minutes, after which lawmakers would be prevented from explaining their position on bills.
Democrats attempted to force a debate on the new rules but were quickly overruled. And members of the audience, including many teachers and public school advocates, had to be reined in by House Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, as they cheered and applauded members of the Democratic Group who opposed the ESA bill.
“It’s like a U2 concert in here,” Weninger quipped, reminding those in attendance not to clap or cheer.
During the 30-minute debate on the ESA expansion bill, Democratic lawmakers pointed to provisions that would allow a “predatory market” to take power and criticized the GOP’s attempt to hold the program accountable.
The bill requires newly eligible students to take a nationally standardized test each year. However, these test results would be largely kept secret: a school’s overall scores would only be made available to ESA parents upon request, and only if the school had at least 50 students taking part with ESA funding.
The state would not be able to see those results, which Democrats said would prevent lawmakers and state officials from seeing whether ESA spending is actually leading to better education.
And that, in turn, creates a scenario where unscrupulous people could open private schools to make money, they said.
“There are no barriers to entering this market,” said Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Cashion. “If I’m a predator looking to make money, I’ll do it like this.”
The lack of accountability is what previously had withheld Republican support Joel John, Joanne Osborne and Michelle Udall.
After the bill was considered in committee last week, Udall told dem Arizona mirror that the testing protocol is too weak and “will not prevent bad actors from exploiting children and parents”. Instead, she said private schools that accept ESA funds should be required to test all of their students – and report those results to the state.
“Without that kind of academic accountability, there are going to be schools that open up, market aggressively, and don’t teach the academics they’re paid to teach,” she said, adding that the proposal would lead to greed at the expense of students would lead parents.
But on Wednesday, Udall voted in favor of the bill, as did John and Osborne. Osborne was the only one of the three to explain her voice on the floor.
“Honestly, there comes a point where people on this body need to say, we need to govern and we need to listen to everyone’s voice in this very divided state,” Osborne said. She thanked Rep. Ben Toma, the Republican from Peoria who led the ESA bill, for his work, adding that the bill also included a large portion of public school funds. That is not true; The bill does not include funding for public schools.
An accompanying measure that would have added $400 million to K-12 funding — about half of that in a one-time burst — if ESA expansion becomes law, was passed in the same committee last week, but it wasn’t heard in the House today. Toma previously said in committee that the second law was “an incentive” to appease ESA opponents.
Supporters of the measure said the bill would affect school choice.
“This bill has the most accountability of all: Parents can choose a school, they can’t choose a school,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “One size doesn’t fit all and we need to give parents and students two things… we need diversity and we need pro-choice.”
Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said he’s attended both public and private schools, but blamed public schools’ “vigilant agenda” for lawmakers having to expand ESAs to allow parents to choose schools for their children to have.
“I have no problem with our public schools unless they shut down the ‘wake up agenda,’ which they recently shut down,” said Hoffman, who has suggested Bills are aimed at “anti-waking”. in schools. “Public sentiment towards public schools was no lower than it is now.”
The ESA expansion comes against the backdrop of an historic budget surplus – an estimated $5.3 billion, or about 40% of current year’s spending. It also comes five years after the voters rejected a similar measure to expand the voucher program.
“This is not the same measure as in 2017, it was a flawed measure,” Toma said in a closing statement on the vote. “Parents are the ultimate accountability, not the government, and we should trust them to do the right thing.”
After the vote was tallied and the measure approved, the gallery began shouting “shame” to lawmakers, who promptly paused to consider legislation, including the state budget.