Opponents Of Expanded School Voucher Law Aim To Put It To Public Vote

By Carrie Jung, Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 - 3:37pm
Updated: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 - 4:43pm
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Opponents of a newly-signed law to expand Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts — basically school vouchers — have launched a campaign to refer the law to the ballot.

Save Our Schools Arizona has to collect 75,321 valid signatures within 90 days of the end of the legislative session to put the law to a public vote; the session is expected to end by Thursday.

Beth Lewis is an elementary school teacher, a mom and chair of Save Our Schools Arizona, and she joins me.

If Save Our Schools Arizona collects more than 75,000 signatures by early August to refer SB 1431 to the ballot, the law to expand the state’s school voucher program would be put on hold, pending that public vote.

KJZZ’s education reporter Carrie Jung has been following this debate since SB 1431 was introduced. What are supporters of the private school voucher expansion bill saying about this new repeal effort?

The idea of repealing the law is not something that’s going over well with its supporters. But Debbie Lesko, the Republican senator who sponsored the bill, is standing behind it, defending a sort of free-market concept as to why she thinks it’s a good addition to the school choice mix here in Arizona.

"What are these people afraid of? If they’re school does a good job, the parents will choose their school," Lesko said. 

That’s also her response to the criticism that this law would send needed public-school tax dollars to private schools at a time when public schools in Arizona are arguably in need of more funding for things like infrastructure maintenance and stopping a growing teacher shortage.

And just as a refresher here, the version of the law that passed will make any Arizona public-school student eligible use state general fund money to pay private-school tuition or other educational expenses.

In the past that was just limited to certain groups of kids. An estimated 5,500 additional students will be allowed to sign up each year, but no more than about 30,000 can sign up by 2022.

While covering the Save Our Schools rally yesterday, I did run into a few spokeswomen with the American Federation For Children, one of the organizations backing SB 1431. Kim Martinez is their communications director.

"It’s unfortunate when any group wants to block a child from getting the best education possible or getting into the school that they need," Martinez said.

She added, these vouchers, or as they’re more formally known, Empowerment Scholarship accounts, are a last resort for people who have exhausted all of their public options for education, stressing families who use this funding have to jump through a lot of hoops to get it.

Now this isn’t the first time we’ve heard the word repeal around the voucher expansion bill. The Goldwater Institute has also weighed in on the final version of the bill.

They’re taking issue with some the key provisions or compromises that it took to get this bill past the legislature, mainly, the permanent enrollment cap of 30,000.

Darcy Olsen, chief executive officer of the Goldwater Institute, said in a message to financial supporters just after the legislature passed the measure said about that cap quote “we’ll get it lifted.”

Now if you think back to when this bill was first introduced, there were caps on enrollment, but they were set to self destruct by 2020.

While this got through committee relatively easily, it stalled when it came to a full floor vote, in large part because of how much it would cost.

A joint legislative budget committee report that estimated that under the original version the state would spend an additional $13.9 million by 2020. Once lawmakers introduced the 30,000 student cap, estimated costs came down significantly and the bill had enough support to pass in early April.

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