Understanding Proposition 305, An Arizona Referendum On School Vouchers
On your ballot it says Proposition 305 is a vote on a law that “would expand eligibility for education empowerment scholarship accounts to increase the number of eligible students enrolled in kindergarten through twelfth grade, with greater funding provided for low-income students.”
Maybe you’re wondering,
What’s an Empowerment Scholarship Account?
Where did they come from?
Who uses them?
Who opposes and supports the measure?
I’m going to try and answer those questions.
Let's Go Back In Time
Arizona lawmakers have tried to pass legislation that would create school vouchers since the 1990s.
The program at the root of Proposition 305 was signed into law in 2011. Senate Bill 1553 called for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs.
Parents were then allowed to pull their kids out of public schools and get 90 percent of the money that would have paid for their education on what’s essentially a debit card. The money can then be used for things like private school, curriculum and therapy. The program was initially limited to students with disabilities.
In the years after, it was expanded to include kids in schools with a D or F rating, foster care, with parents in the military, parents who are legally blind, deaf or hard of hearing and living on Indian Reservations, or who have a sibling in the program already among other groups.
The amount of money a family gets for their child varies. Children with disabilities can receive a five-figure payout while a child without receives fewer dollars.
A report from the state Auditor General found the state awarded parents between $2,900 and $31,500 in fiscal year 2016.
The Arizona Republic analyzed public records from the state’s Department of Education. The paper’s reporters found in 2017 “more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an A or B rating.”
In 2017, lawmakers were presented with another expansion.
At that point every child in Arizona could be eligible to use ESAs, but there would be a cap of 30,000 students in the program.
Debbie Lesko, now a congresswoman, sponsored Senate Bill 1431.
“I really believe that ESAs are a win-win for Arizona,” Lesko told the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 9, 2017. “They give parents another choice on where they can send their child to get the best education.”
There were dozens of people in the audience with lime green “Yes ESA” stickers on their shirts, but there was also immediate opposition in the room, including from Senator Catherine Miranda who said the bill jeopardized public schools.
“We’re not funding our public schools,” Miranda said. “So, we need to fix our public schools so they won’t leave.”
The audience applauded and were reprimanded by Sen. Sylvia Allan,chairwoman of the Senate Education committee.
“Sorry, you can’t do that,” Allen said.
Parents, concerned about their children’s public schools flocked to the Capitol during last year’s legislative session.
The hearings on ESAs caught Dawn Penich-Thacker’s attention. She’s a mom and college professor.
‘What sounds like this lovely thing ‘empowerment scholarships for education, wow,’ what it really is is private school vouchers that suck money out of the public school system to subsidize private and homeschooling,” Penich-Thacker said. “I just thought, that’s not OK.”
The Legislature passed the expansion and Gov. Doug Ducey signed it.
Penich-Thacker and five other women who met at the Capitol decided they needed to do something about it.
“None of us are politicians or even work in the political world so we literally googled how to do you run a referendum in Arizona,” Penich-Thacker said.
A referendum gives you, the voter, the final say on if the program will grow to serve all Arizona children (a yes vote) or continue to be available just to specific groups( a no vote).
No On 305
Parents, teachers and community members who opposed the proposition gathered on a recent Saturday morning to knock on the doors of potential voters.
“I like to say yeah my name’s Raquel, I’m addicted to No on 305,” said Raquel Mamani, laughing.
She piloted her family minivan through central Phoenix while a fellow canvasser gave directions.
Mamani was heavily involved with the parent teacher group at her kids school and started to wonder why they had to raise thousands of dollars to pay district staff.
“I don’t think we have any problem with people having a vast amount of choice in Arizona when it comes to making a decision about what’s best for your kids,” said teacher Kate Tice from the back seat. “We just don’t think Arizona’s taxpayers would have to foot the bill for somebody to go to a private school.”
Among the opponents of Proposition 305 are parents of children who already access the empowerment scholarship accounts like Susan Edwards.
Edwards uses a metaphor to describe what she believes the expansion would do.
Imagine someone with special needs as the short person at a concert.
“The concert that’s playing is called an appropriate education and you can’t see the stage,” Edwards said. “What do is you stand on your chair is you stand on your chair and that chair is ESA legislation as it is now.”
ESA allows her children to learn in an environment that works for them.
“They continually focus on what it takes for the individual child to be successful,” Edwards said of New Way Academy.
Edwards said expanding the ESA program would be like giving everyone a chair and when everyone has a chair those who needed the boost in the first place are disadvantaged once again.
She believes Proposition 305 doesn’t give priority to children who are already enrolled in the program.
“The reality is that we have so much less time and energy and money — our ability to get in line we don’t have the same amount of extra to get in line,” Edwards said.
Yes On 305
Jenny Clark has three children who use empowerment scholarships, in part because their home school district lacks a specific program to help kids with dyslexia.
“When you have a child that is really struggling with a learning disability it takes you a long time to figure out what is wrong with your child and what you can do as a parent to help your child,” Clark said.
She said ESA has allowed her to pay for curriculum, tutors and therapists that can treat her children’s disabilities. A few months ago she joined the Yes on Prop 305 campaign.
“Parents who’ve reached out to me who’ve said 'You know my child might not be special needs on paper, but they’re being bullied, they’re struggling in their school,'” Clark said. “They need to be somewhere else than their district or charter school and I want that opportunity for them.”
Clark said her home public school district didn’t have a remediation program specifically for dyslexia.
Another criticism of the ESA program is misspending. For example, a 2016 Arizona Auditor General report found $102,000 in misspending.
She believes the accountability issues with the voucher program have been overstated.
“I have to submit a receipt for every single expense that I use in the education of my child,” Clark said. “Any expense that somehow went outside the guidelines — we would have to immediately reimburse.”
The Arizona Republic reported several groups that have supported school vouchers in the past will “largely sit out” the Proposition 305 campaign.
Andrew Clark, Arizona Director of Americans for Prosperity, wrote in an op-ed for the paper that the measure has negative consequences for school choice supporters whether it passes or fails.
A no vote would “cap the number of ESA-eligible students at less than one-half of 1 percent of Arizona’s population, and require a three-fourths majority to expand the program, even if it proves to be wildly successful.”
Still have questions about Proposition 305? Submit them to our reporting project, Q&AZ and we'll try to get them answered before election day.