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Bitterly divided House panel OKs big school voucher bill

March 17, 2021 GMT

PHOENIX (AP) — A bitterly divided Arizona House committee voted Wednesday to advance a massive expansion of the state’s school voucher program just over two years after voters overwhelmingly rejected universal school vouchers.

Republicans called the measure already passed by the full Senate a lifeline for 600,000 low-income students who would become entitled to state funding for private school tuition. Minority Democrats argued it would siphon money from already-underfunded public schools and go against the will of voters who rejected the larger expansion in 2018.

Testimony was equally split, with members of a grassroots group who succeeded in putting the 2017 expansion law on the ballot saying the proposal was a special interest giveaway at the expense of public schools and backers noting that public school closures caused by the pandemic made it even more important to give parents options.

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Sharon Kirsch, a co-founder of Save Our Schools Arizona and a mother of two teens attending public schools, ticked off the gradual expansion of the program. It began as a way for disabled students to use state money for private special education in 2011 and expanded nearly every year until the 2017 universal voucher program was challenged by her group.

“Arizona voters said no to that massive expansion by a 2-1 margin, and yet the program has (grown) to over $100 million a year, a cost equivalent to 2,000 public school teachers, something desperately needed in a state with the highest teacher turnover in the nation,” Kirsch told the House Ways and Means Committee. “But here were are again watching a strategy of well-funded special interests systematically and incrementally pushing an agenda of privatization that the people of Arizona do not want.”

Proponents included parents of students who have spent much of the last year losing academic ground as they took classes from home via computer screens. One, Robert Baca of Laveen, testified that both his children were straight A students before the shutdowns.

“It’s devastating that I’m down here testifying to you that distance learning has been the downfall of my children’s education,” Baca said. “Both of my students this year became F students, both of them because of distance learning and COVID.”

Public schools are now under orders from Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to reopen for in-person learning, but the bill sponsor, Glendale Republican Sen. Paul Boyer, said allowing parents to use state money to go to private schools will help students catch up.

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“The reason why we’re here – experts estimate that low income students are anywhere from 12-18 months behind,” Boyer said. ”This ... could be a life changer for these students, not only catching up but exceeding.”

Boyer’s proposal, SB1452, initially would have made all children attending schools with a high percentage of low-income families or who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches eligible for the state’s voucher program. The measure would affect about 800,000 students.

A House amendment adopted Wednesday stripped out the “Title 1” low-income school provision. Opponents said it would have allowed rich parents to briefly enroll their child in a qualifying school and earn a voucher because the bill also shortens the time students must attend public school to just 30 days. The amendment by Rep. Tim Dunn of Yuma also added military veterans to the qualifying list, bringing the total affected to about 600,000 out of 1.1 million attending public schools statewide.

The amendment stripping attendance at Title 1 schools as qualifying was apparently prompted by opposition from Republican Sen. Tyler Pace of Mesa, who said during last month’s Senate vote that he was concerned it could be abused.

A separate amendment by Republican Rep. Shawnna Bolick of Phoenix stripped out another provision that would have allowed parents to use a separate program that funnels tax credits to them to fund private school tuition.

Still in the measure is a provision that takes sales tax revenue voters approved for teacher pay and sends it to parents of voucher students, with no auditing required.

The state Department of Education says about 250,000 students are now eligible, but only about 9,800 students are currently getting vouchers, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Account. They cost the state about $145 million a year, and more than half are disabled.

The department, led by a Democrat, opposes the measure because of the 2018 referendum and because it lacks money to administer the expanded program.

The program allows parents to take state funding and pay for religious or other private education and education costs. Parents get 90% of the state funds that normally go to their local public school to use for private school tuition and other education costs. Disabled students can receive up to $40,000 for specialized therapy.

The House committee voted 6-4 along party lines to send Boyer’s proposal to the full House for consideration.