The Arizona Senate has passed a potentially massive expansion of private school vouchers on a straight, 16-14 party-line vote, just two years after voters decisively rejected a much less expansive bill.
Currently, some 10,000 Arizona students qualify for $145 million in taxpayer money to attend private schools. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee has said the change would likely increase the annual cost in the short term to $300 million.
But that financial toll could increase dramatically. If SB 1452 passes the House and gets signed by the governor, it might expand eligibility to perhaps 700,000 children — two-thirds of the 1.1 million kids in Arizona schools.
Backers said the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) will help poor students stuck in bad schools by giving parents a real choice. The bill would open the program to any district receiving Title I funds — which flow to about two-thirds of the districts in the state.
Backers also argue that the voucher expansion would actually save districts money, since the vouchers amount to 90% of the per-student funding that flows to public charter schools.
The bill has the strong support of all the District 6 representatives, including Senator Wendy Rogers and House members Brenda Barton and Walt Blackman.
In 2018, 65% of voters approved a referendum that overturned a previous effort to expand vouchers. That bill would have extended eligibility to every student in the state, but had a total enrollment cap.
The constitution prevents lawmakers from violating the “intent” of a voter-approved initiative. However, it’s unclear if that prohibition also applies to voter approved referendums — which overturn a law passed by the legislature.
Opponents said the voucher expansion will “devastate” public district schools, already among the most poorly funded in the country. They said the effect of the current program has been to increase segregation in urban schools, a contention supported by an investigation by The Arizona Republic. The roughly $7,400 taxpayer grant per student generally doesn’t cover the full cost of private school tuition, so the vouchers have gone mostly to parents who can afford to pay the difference.
Save Our Schools organizers who backed the 2018 referendum vowed to launch a new effort to block SB 1452 and several companion measures.
The bill comes amid a historic decline in public school enrollment due to the pandemic. Most school district this year have suffered a 10-15% decline in enrollment as parents have kept their children home or shifted them to private schools with smaller class sizes. Districts fear massive budget cuts if those students don’t return once vaccinations tame the pandemic. Now they also worry many parents will take advantage of the massive expansion of the voucher program to leave district schools permanently.
Rural schools are also concerned about a massive shift in state funding to urban areas. Most of the private schools that can take advantage of the vouchers are in urban areas. Payson does have one private school —the Payson Christian School — which continued to offer in-person classes during months that Payson district schools shifted to distance learning.
Arizona has the most extensive school choice movement in the country, with a growing network of public charter schools and the growing number of taxpayer-supported private schools. School choice advocates say only competition from more flexible and creative private and charter schools can prod public district schools to improve — while also empowering parents.
However, Arizona also ranks near the bottom nationally in per-student funding. National surveys show Arizona has among the lowest teacher salaries and the largest class sizes in the country.
The current law limits the vouchers to students attending public schools that get a D or F rating that they’ve attended for at least 100 days. SB1452 would extend eligibility to any student who has attended a Title I school for 30 days.
The bill also contains few protections against misuse of the vouchers to pay for things not directly related to school. Investigations have turned up cases in which parents have stockpiled the voucher money. SB 1452. The law includes oversights for the private and religious schools that would receive the voucher money.
Bill author Sen. Paul Boyer dismissed opponent’s claims that the bill will lead to more segregation of public schools, as white parents in relatively wealthy urban districts shift their children to private schools that have sprung up in many wealthy suburbs of those urban districts.
He said the bill targets Title I schools based on family poverty rates. “To say this bill somehow promotes segregation is preposterous,” said Sen. Paul Boyer. “A family choosing for themselves any school that works best for their own child? That’s not segregation, that’s freedom. Assigning families to inferior schools based upon their home address is fundamentally the true segregation problem that we face today.”
However, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee says that as the law is written, any student from a Title 1 school could use the voucher regardless of family income.
Sen. Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix) said if the bill was really intended to help poor children in failing schools, it would have included an income cap. She noted that the bill will result in a massive transfer of taxpayer funding from struggling rural school districts with few private schools for parents to choose from to private schools in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Tucson. “How in the world is that right?” she asked.
Among the additional provisions of the bill:
• Takes money from the voter approved 301 to reduce class sizes, increase teacher salaries and reduce dropout rates and adds that to the vouchers.
• Allows parents to use voucher money to pay for public transportation to a more distant school site.
• Allows parents who receive vouchers to receive money from the tax credits that fund School Tuition Organizations.
• Prevents parents who misspend the money from losing funding unless the Arizona Attorney General determines an account holder committed fraud. Currently, misspent money is forfeited rather than returned.
• Allows parents to spend the voucher money on any portion of educational therapies not covered by health insurance.