A Moment of Reason in the Arizona Legislature – Voucher Expansion Bill Defeated

Somewhat unbelievable, but reason prevailed today in Arizona. Against all odds, the latest grand attempt to expand vouchers failed 31 to 27. HB2291, as amended, would have expanded eligibility for vouchers to any student living within qualified zip codes (as defined by the average household income is below 185% of the federal poverty level for a family of four) regardless of family income.  If passed and signed into law by the Governor, this bill would have expanded eligibility to 112,000 and exponentially increased costs for the program.

I watched a live feed of the Arizona House Committee of the Whole discuss this bill, HB 2291, Empowerment Scholarships Accounts; Expansion, sponsored by Rep Debbie Lesko (R). Some great points were made on the part of those against the bill and the same Rep. Ontondo (D), a former teacher said that in her legislative district, there are people who earn $300,000 and others who make $15,000. If you average this out, she said, it probably is about 40,000 so those who don’t need the “vouchers” to afford the private schools will get taxpayer dollars anyway. She also expressed the concern about the lack of transparency and oversight and referred to the fact that 21% of the ESA funding has been banked by parents and therefore not used for the education of their children. She said that taxpayers deserve to know how their dollars are being spent. Another representative (D) said that if we want great outcomes, we need to keep money in public education and stop choking our public schools. Another (D) said we’ve had choice in Arizona since the early 1990s and what has it done to improve our public education. If we can’t get everyone a voucher, we shouldn’t be doing it.

Rep Hale (D), from the Navajo Nation, asked Rep Lesko (the AZ Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC) several questions to subtly make his points. The first was whether she was aware of the income levels on the Navajo Nation and whether she knows how many private schools there are on the Navajo Nation. She said she did not know the answer to his questions. He replied that there are no private schools. She said ESAs don’t only offer funding for private schools, but for on-line learning or tutoring as well. He then asked if she was aware of how few people had access to the Internet on the Navajo Nation and she said she was not. I was impressed with how he led her down the path to divulging how ignorant she was about some of the state’s most needy children.

Rep Wheeler (D) provided information about the funding issues of this bill. He said recent changes to ESAs ensure funding at 90% of charter versus public, to the amount of $1007 per pupil more. He said that under the current basic state funding, a non-disabled student gets $5,400 as opposed to $5,800 per student (90% of $6,400 for vouchers.) This alone, according to the AZ Joint Budget Legislative Committee (JBLC), will increase costs of this program by $950K this fiscal year. He also said that if there were 600K students on ESAs, it would cost $3.6B and if there were 800K, it would cost $4.8B. Currently he said, there are 150K students eligible. With this bill, and addition of free or reduced, the increase in 2017 would be by 485K and cost another $2.19B. He also said that the cap of 5,400 per year meant nothing as it could easily be raised.

In a surprise to me, Rep Goodale (R) said she voted no because 100K expansion is too much at this time for the ESA program to absorb.

Finally, I’m quickly becoming a fan of Rep Heather Carter. She is a Republican, but first of all, she is a rationale representative of the people and, a strong advocate for public education. She was an articulate advocate for public education today and made some great arguments. When Rep Kavanaugh (R) referred to the district charters as faux charters, she called him on it. She pointed out that the laws allowing districts to convert their schools to charters had been on the books for 20 years. If the districts followed the rules, why change the rules now? All Kavanaugh could say was that “the timing was suspect.” When the bill proponents praised charters, she pointed out it is the 20th anniversary of charters and how the AZ Legislature just voted to remove the option of charters from the toolbox of our school districts. She pointed out how this is entirely against the purported goal of offering competition to improve achievement. She also said that the choice policies not going to help rural districts if we don’t put local options of choice in place.

In explaining her vote, she said she supported ESA accounts the way they were originally marketed, which was to provide academic opportunities who had unmet needs in our public schools. She said there were good public policy reasons why certain students’ needs were not met and it was marketed that ESAs would save the state money. Recent changes to allow ESAs to get additional charter assistance however, changed all that and now, ESAs cost more. She eloquently discussed what choice means to her: the choice of whether to send her daughter to public, charter, or private school, or to home school her. What this bill was really talking about though, was putting the AZ public education budget on a debit card. She pointed out that we lead the country in choice policy and have had open enrollment since 1994. If parents really want to send their children to another school, they can do that. Choice is different than the funding issue. This bill confuses the dollars we spend in AZ with school choice. It is the job of the legislature to fund public schools and they need to do it!

The last speaker before the vote was Rep Lesko, the sponsor of the bill. She made one last-ditch effort to get her colleagues to support her bill, but her arguments just weren’t compelling. She said the bill gives low-income students the opportunity to improve their situation and yet, Rep Hale had already pointed out it won’t help those on the Navajo Nation. She pointed out that although the bill would make 112K students eligible, the current cap in only about 5,400 per year so what is everyone worried about? Rep Wheeler pointed out during the debate that the cap means nothing because it can always be raised. Lesko also claimed that the program will actually save over $3,000 per year per student, but as the AZ JLBC noted, costs are now higher for ESAs than for educating a student in public schools.

Yes, the bill was defeated today, but I’m not going to rest easy because it is crazy (okay, craziest) time at the AZ Legislature. In addition to Rep Mesnard (R) changing his vote for a likely reconsideration on HB2291, there are several other anti-public education bills working their way to the Governor’s office. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • HB2139 (sponsor: Rep. Petersen) – Expands the ESA program to any sibling of a student who has an ESA and any preschool special education student. This will significantly grow the ESA program, and the money to fund all of these students will be placed directly on the state’s General Fund. Money out the door with zero accountability.
  • HB2150 (sponsor: Borrelli) – Removes the 100 day requirement for students to attend a public school before getting an ESA for students who have parents in the military.  Thus, students with parents in the military will be eligible for ESA private school vouchers without ever having attended public school.
  • HB2328 (sponsor: Rep. Livingston) – This bill amends the eligibility for the corporate tax credit STO program for students with special needs and foster kids.  It eliminates the current requirement that these students must attend a public school for at least 90 days to be eligible for an STO. This means that students who are already in private schools will now be eligible to get STO monies under this corporate tax credit STO program.
  • SB1237 (sponsor: Sen. Yee) – This is the Arizona Department of Education’s ESA administrative bill.  One provision of the bill clarifies that all ESA students get 90% of the base support level funding + the charter school additional assistance.  This means that students who leave a traditional school district to attend private school using an ESA will actually be given more funding to go to a private school then the public school would receive to educate them.
  • SB1236 (sponsor: Yee) – This bill is identical to HB2291, expanding the ESA program to any student living in a zip code where the federal poverty rate is 185% (family of four making $46,000). Because this bill is identical to HB2291, the bills can be switched out during a third read vote in each chamber so they will not have to go to the other chamber.  If passed in the Senate, the bill gets transmitted to Governor Brewer.

People often ask me what the hell the AZ Legislature is thinking with regard to the actions they are taking against public education. I tell them they know exactly what they are thinking and doing. I believe they are out to destroy public education and turn over tax payer dollars for such to the privateers to expand their profits. We must remain vigilant and keep up the pressure. For our students, for our public schools, for our communities and for our future!

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2 thoughts on “A Moment of Reason in the Arizona Legislature – Voucher Expansion Bill Defeated

  1. Wow! Hit the nail straight on the head. All of us who support public district education have to get together and to protect what our representatives are not concerned about. It’s in our state constitution that we must provide education for all. In order to be heard, we must call write our legislative representives! I challenge every public district school to invite your representative to come to your school and tell them the truth about your school district. I am appalled by all of this sneaky wording of bills and changing them when the public doesn’t expect it.

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