Arizona Senate Passes School Voucher Bill Geared Toward Low-Income Students

By Rocio Hernandez, Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, February 16, 2021 - 6:48am
Updated: Tuesday, February 16, 2021 - 1:01pm

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On Monday, the Arizona Senate voted along party lines to pass a bill that seeks to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program.

The vote came as a disappointment individuals that have been fighting the expansion of school vouchers in the state, and instead championing public schools.

"Despite Arizona voters repeatedly voting to reject private school voucher expansion and fund public schools, out-of-state lobbyists and anti-public education politicians have once again shown they have no regard for the will of voters and taxpayers," said Save Our Schools Arizona, a grassroot nonprofit organization in a Monday statement.

Under the bill by Republican State Sen. Paul Boyer, Senate Bill 1452, students from low-income households or who attend Title I schools would be eligible to use state funding meant for public schools, and instead put it toward the educational experience of their choice such as private schools. School choice is especially important during the pandemic that limited in-person learning at some schools, Boyer said.

Paul Boyer
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Paul Boyer in 2019.

“There are many, many wealthy parents that can afford to send their children to public schools. Many middle-income parents cannot, and most low-income parents cannot. I’m trying to fix that," he said. 

But Democratic lawmakers such as state Sen. Christine Marsh argued the bill would do more harm than good by taking money away from an already underfunded public school system.

“If we were funding our kids to raise maybe a little beyond last in the nation then this bill right now would not be as offensive to some of us right now," she said. 

Others such Sen. Martin Quezada argued that programs like ESA lead to more segregation in schools. Boyer pushed back.

“A family choosing for themselves to be in any schools that works best for their child. That’s not segregation. That’s freedom,' he said. 

After passing in the Senate, the bill is now headed to the House, but Save Our Schools Arizona, which defeated a major ESA expansion in 2018, is vowing to do so again if SB. 1452 becomes law.

For more on the voucher expansion and what's different this time around, The Show spoke to Julia Shumway of the Arizona Capitol Times.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: In 2018, Arizona voters rejected attempts to expand the state's employment — Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), also known as vouchers. But Republican lawmakers continue to be fans of ESAs, and this legislative session is seeing strong efforts to increase them again. Julia Shumway of the Arizona Capitol Times is with me for a few minutes to parse through the current legislation and the bigger picture. Julia, good morning. So it feels like every year we talk about one bill or another to expand ESAs, these vouchers. How would this year's bill expand those? And how dramatic an expansion could we see compared to past efforts?

JULIA SHUMWAY: So this year's bill would expand vouchers to children who are from low-income families, but also to classmates of children from low-income families. So as it's written, if you qualify for something like food stamps, free or reduced lunch, you can get a voucher. But if you go to a school — if you don't personally qualify for those programs and you go to a school where 40% of children do, you could also qualify. This could end up adding as far as legislative budget analysts can tell, about 600,000 more students to the eligibility rolls, bringing that up to about 836,000 students in total.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, that's an enormous leap. Is this something, has that sort of method been tried before or is this sort of unique? Certainly sounds like it based on what you described.

SHUMWAY: Yeah. So this is new. What we saw a couple of years ago is a more universal voucher expansion. And obviously voters rejected that by huge margins at the ballot box. This is described as being targeted at low-income students. We may see changes in the House that might make it a little more narrowly targeted to low-income students. Right now, about 200,000 of those kids they'd be adding don't actually qualify for these programs themselves. They just go to a school with students who do or who would if this bill passed.

GOLDSTEIN: Julia, what's the estimated cost of this?

SHUMWAY: We don't have those numbers quite yet. So a lot of that depends on how many students actually take the program. So it depends on obviously, even if you have 800,000 total students eligible for ESAs, that doesn't mean that most of them will take it. You're probably looking at like, just a few thousand who will try to receive these vouchers.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm asking you to read lawmakers' minds, but so many questions are filtered through the pandemic. Has perception of this in any way changed because of the pandemic? Have some lawmakers thought, because we've seen so many situations with schools changing, whether it's a hybrid-learning model, all these other things, is there any feeling among lawmakers that people's appetites may have changed for this kind of thing?

SHUMWAY: I think you definitely see that as an argument. We haven't seen any actual changes in who would be supporting or opposing this bill. But we've heard a lot about [COVID-19] in the debate over it. And this argument that while a lot of parents who may have students in public school that may have been closed or have have had their campuses closed for months and months and months with the pandemic, maybe they would prefer to go to a private school that is open. And that's one of the arguments that Republicans have brought up for this bill.

GOLDSTEIN: As you mentioned, a couple of years ago, we saw Arizona voters soundly reject an expansion and we saw a grassroots effort by Save Our Schools, etc. If it passes in the Legislature, what's the likelihood we're going to see a sort of a grassroots effort again or even another sort of referendum?

SHUMWAY: I think that's very high. So already, Save Our Schools has pledged that if this passes, they will again try to mobilize that grassroots effort, try to refer this to the ballot again. It's more likely that we would initially see legal challenges and then move on to the collecting of petition signatures and trying to actually refer to the ballot if those legal challenges are unsuccessful.

GOLDSTEIN: Just how nasty does this feel right now? Is there a feeling that, OK, we are a little bit frustrated that voters rejected this a couple of years ago? How about opponents of this possible expansion? Is there a feeling of here we go again, to some extent? Déjà vu?

SHUMWAY: Absolutely. So you heard that a lot from Democrats yesterday and a couple of weeks ago when this bill was in committee. One, Sen. Martin Quezada, pointed, said that this is why voters don't trust lawmakers, that voters are telling lawmakers over and over again what they want, that they passed not just Proposition 305, rejecting vouchers a couple of years ago, but a couple large education funding measures, including last year's Proposition 208. And the senators like Sen. Quezada take that as a sign that voters want more funding for public education and not anything like vouchers that would go to private schools.

GOLDSTEIN: And, Julia, finally, briefly, we certainly know how the governor has felt about school choice. Is there any reason to think that, that in a legislature that is tightly controlled but also very party-line on certain things, is there reason to believe this wouldn't get through and the governor might not sign it if it does?

SHUMWAY: I think it'll be interesting to see in the House because there are, of course, all Democrats are opposed to this, so you only need to lose one Republican. And there are a couple of Republicans in the House who are teachers or former teachers in public schools who are not as excited about the idea of vouchers as some of their Republican colleagues. And if one or two of them split off, this bill is dead.

GOLDSTEIN: Julia Shumway of the Arizona Capital Times, thanks for your time this morning.

SHUMWAY: Thank you.

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