School Voucher Bill Passes Out Of House Ways And Means Committee

Published: Wednesday, March 17, 2021 - 2:47pm

A bill that would make an estimated 600,000 low-income Arizona students eligible for school vouchers passed in the House Ways and Means committee Wednesday with a 6-4 vote along party lines.

The bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Paul Boyer said his bill is meant to help low-income children whose education has been disproportionately impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This could be a life changer for these students, not just only catching up but also exceeding," Boyer said. 

The vouchers from the state's Empowerment Scholarship Account program are funded through state money for public education. Families can use them to pay for private or home-school costs. Parents in favor of the bill say they should be free to use this money, raised by taxpayers, so their children can go to the school of their choice. Laveen father Robert Baca is one of them. He told committee members that his children's grades have slipped since pandemic forced schools to go virtual. 

“I am asking you on behalf of all Arizona parents to put our children first and give us the options of using an ESA to go find a high-quality, private school with smaller class sizes and lots of one on one attention," Baca said. 

But Democratic lawmakers like state Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley weren't convinced of the bill’s intentions and voted against it. 

“Many times in my five years in the Legislature, I’ve heard the majority party say we can’t fix education by throwing money at it," Powers Hannley said. "That’s what this does. It throws money at it when we have no data to show its effectiveness.”

Powers Hannley and parents against the bill brought up a 2018 effort to expand the ESA program that was defeated by voters by a 2:1 margin. Sharon Kirsch, a co-founder of the nonprofit Save Our Schools Arizona, which led the fight against this effort, said the vote shows the people of Arizona do not want this. 

"Arizonans want our public school system to be funded, not to be at the bottom of the barrel in nearly every single category," Kirsch said. 

Boyer pushed back saying his bill was different than the previous legislation. 

But the committee did reduce the number of students who would be eligible for a voucher under Boyer's bill from 800,000 students, or 75% of Arizona's 1.1 million students, to about 600,000 students, or 55%, according to estimates by the Arizona Department of Education.

Boyer's bill previously defined low-income students as children who received free and reduced lunch as well as any child who receives federal Title I services, regardless of their income level. An amendment by Rep. Tim Dunn removes the latter group, but extends eligibility to children of veterans. 

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