Arizona: The Largest School Voucher Plan Has Been Approved, Faces Challenges

Governor Doug Ducey approved a significant expansion of the state’s voucher system on Thursday, despite a planned attempt by public school supporters to delay the measure and urge voters in November to erase it.

The expansion authorized by Ducey would allow any parent in the state of Arizona to utilize public money now provided to the K-12 public school system to pay for their children’s private school tuition or other educational expenses.

As of now, Arizona has the most diverse educational alternatives in the country, and if the measure is signed into law, it will have the most extensive voucher system as well.

Pupils who are privately or homeschooled are instantly eligible for up to $7,000 per year in vouchers, but only a tiny percentage of students now get them. All 1.1 million pupils now enrolled in conventional district and charter schools would be eligible to leave their public schools and receive financial aid to attend private schools. However, just roughly 12,000 students throughout the state are now making use of the system. Although about one third already qualify.

Ducey has advocated for “school choice” throughout his eight years in office. Save Our Schools Arizona, an activist organization, pushed for a referendum on a voucher expansion with enrollment limitations, which he signed into law in 2017.

Expansion backers, despite voter rejection of “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” by a 2-to-1 margin in the 2018 election, have continued to push for fresh proposals. In the short legislative session that concluded early on June 25th, the universal voucher measure was the only one to be enacted with the backing of the majority of Republican legislators.

The executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, Beth Lewis, said her organization would immediately seek to refer the measure to the ballot under a clause of the Arizona Constitution that permits opponents of new laws to gather signatures of 5% of eligible voters and prevent it until the next general election.

There are about 119,000 valid signatures needed in this scenario, and proponents often include a 25% buffer. To prevent the legislation from taking effect and place it on the November ballot, they need to gather and bring in those signatures by the end of September to the Secretary of State’s office.  “I have every confidence that we’re going to be able to refer HB2853,” Lewis said in an interview. “Our network of volunteers across the state are pumped and ready.”

To them, vouchers are a drain on an already impoverished public school system, while proponents see the program as a way to give parents more control over their children’s education.

A new voucher legislation might cost more than the $1 billion in extra school financing that was introduced this year, Lewis said, citing the new law’s price estimate. “In a nutshell, this bill will siphon upwards of $1 billion from public schools every single year to unaccountable private academies, micro schools and homeschools,” Lewis said. “And we simply can’t let that happen.”

Many of the youngsters enrolled in the voucher program have special needs. As a result, she estimated that $400 million to $600 million would be “flying out the window like overnight, with automatic eligibility on September 26.”

The state’s budget experts estimate the expansion expenses at $125 million in two years, although they concede that the calculations are extremely speculative and based on additional expenditures, not the losses from public schools.. Tax credit programs help a large number of children attend private schools, but the amount of money they get is far less than what students receive via school choice vouchers.

Ducey in a statement called the signing a “monumental moment for all of Arizona’s students. Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools.”

The majority of these institutions, however, are located in low-income neighborhoods that provide few options for private education. As a result, the students’ parents must depend on the local public schools, which have been chronically underfunded for many years.

He didn’t address the fact that the 2017 expansion was soundly rejected, nor did he mention the new challenge that would be coming his way. The state’s leading position in private school offerings was lauded instead.

“With this legislation, Arizona cements itself as the top state for school choice and as the first state in the nation to offer all families the option to choose the school setting that works best for them,” he said.

Despite Republican demands, the voucher bill does not include any measures to ensure accountability, such as testing. In addition, there is little control of the money that are given out.

As of 2011, the program was limited to kids with disabilities, but it has since been extended to include many more students, including those living on reserves in Native American communities and those attending underperforming public schools, among others.

In the most recent school year, approximately 12,000 current students received $196 million from the Arizona Department of Education. Only around $20,000 has been paid out so far.

Private school tuition and other education expenditures are eligible for 90 percent of the state monies that would ordinarily go to the local public school, allowing parents to save money. Students with disabilities might get up to $40,000 for specialized treatment.

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