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Ignoring voters, Arizona approves nation’s largest school voucher scheme

Arizona educators enter the state Senate building after attending a news conference in Phoenix on June 21. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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In 2018, the voters of Arizona made clear how they felt about a plan to use public money to fund private education: They voted against it, or as Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts described it: “Actually, they didn’t just reject it. They stoned the thing, then they tossed it into the street and ran over it. Then they backed up and ran over it again.”

Despite the nearly 2-to-1 rejection, the Republican-dominated Arizona legislature has just approved the nation’s largest school voucher scheme, one that makes every Arizona student eligible for taxpayer-supplied funds to attend private and religious schools as well for online education, home schooling, tutors, etc.

It is the only approved universal voucher program in any state at the moment — and it speaks volumes about what critics say is a hostility to publicly operated and funded school districts, which still educate the majority of Arizona’s children.

Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has said he will sign the legislation, which, as the right-wing Heritage Foundation said, means that Arizona was able to “reclaim its title as the state with the ‘most expansive’ ” school voucher program in the nation. Ducey was not shy about claiming the prize, tweeting, “The biggest school choice victory in U.S. history.”

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One thing missing from the legislation: any kind of accountability that would let the public know what the schools getting the voucher money are actually doing. Yes, students entering the voucher program would have to take a national standardized test annually — but the state won’t see the scores, and unless a particular school has at least 50 voucher students attending, parents can’t see even aggregate scores. That doesn’t worry House Majority Leader Ben Toma, the bill’s prime mover, who said accountability would come from parents who “know what’s best for their children.”

State Sen. Christine Marsh (D) tried to add accountability measures to the legislation last week but failed. According to 12 News, she wanted amendments that would have required private schools taking in students with vouchers to do things such as check the fingerprints of employees and implement academic standards and testing. It quoted her as saying: “We have no financial transparency and we have no academic transparency. I’d like to know how many families that earn maybe a million dollars a year are getting voucher money versus how many families earning maybe 30 or 40,000 a year are getting voucher money.”

That sentiment is, however, outside the concern of proponents of school choice — alternatives to district-operated public schools — who don’t just want options for low-income families but for all families.

Besides, Arizona Republicans have not concerned themselves much with accountability issues in “choice” programs. The state’s charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — are allowed to pretty much do whatever they want. The state has no cap on the number of charters and allows charter owners to opt out of procurement requirements and accounting guidelines required of state agencies. The state auditor general isn’t allowed to monitor charters — and it is no surprise that there have been numerous scandals involving financial fraud in the sector. (You can learn about some of this here.)

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Approximately 28 percent of publicly funded schools in Arizona are charters, and they enroll about 20 percent of students in the state. The nonprofit Center for Education Reform announced in May that Arizona had “made a comeback to overtake Florida as the first place winner in the advancement of charter schools.” More good news for Arizona’s GOP.

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Under the new voucher plan, all 1.1 million students in Arizona who can enroll in a public school can get vouchers — technically known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts — in the form of a debit card worth about $7,000 and use it for educational purposes. The current voucher plan in Arizona helps fewer than 12,000 students.

The voucher legislation almost didn’t pass because a few Republican lawmakers were concerned about the level of funding for public school districts — a chronic problem in Arizona, whose per-student funding is at or near the bottom among all states. The Arizona Constitution has a school spending limit approved by voters in 1980, and, according to the nonprofit Arizona Center for Economic Progress, “is antiquated and based on what school needs were like in 1980.”

The legislature reluctantly lifted the cap for the just-completed school year after it became clear that draconian cuts would have to be made in schools as a result of costs sustained during the pandemic and a serious teacher shortage.

To secure passage of the voucher plan — which the legislation estimates will cost the state’s general fund up to $33.4 million in 2023, the first year, and $125.4 million by 2025 — legislators agreed to boost public school spending, but, again, the spending cap will have to be lifted. In the budget Ducey signed this week, public school districts will get a boost of more than $1 billion — though the legislature will have to raise the school spending limit again — which is nowhere near what Arizona school districts say they need to meet student needs.

Opponents of the voucher program have a way to postpone it: They have the chance to collect enough signatures over the next three months to put it on the ballot for a vote in 2024. The program would then not go into effect in 2023 as planned.

Exactly how many students will choose to avail themselves of the money remains to be seen. According to the Private School Review website, Arizona has 242 religiously affiliated private schools — the majority Christian and Catholic — that serve nearly 48,500 students. It says the average tuition cost is $7,309, which compares to $10,255 in average tuition for nonreligious private schools in Arizona.

Democrats said they worried about a “predatory market” of private schools that will be opened in a hurry when the voucher program begins. Republicans were not concerned.

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