More than 1 million voters rejected lawmakers’ attempt to allow every public school student in Arizona to attend private or parochial schools on taxpayer dollars – but the fight isn’t over.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, the spokeswoman for the group responsible for sending the expansion to the ballot, announced Proposition 305’s downfall to cheers.
She said the result seemed unlikely nearly two years ago when the Legislature passed then-Sen. Debbie Lesko’s Senate Bill 1431 and a new group dubbed Save Our Schools Arizona promised a referendum.
And she had a message for lawmakers, new and old.
“Tonight’s rejection of vouchers is a mandate: Supporting and investing in public education is your priority,” she said.
“We are proud and we are grateful” – Watch the Save our Schools Arizona victory speech following the resounding defeat of Proposition 305 “Empowerment Scholarship” voucher expansion. https://t.co/lZbRM7YyoR pic.twitter.com/q3xwkooHVN
— SOSArizona (@arizona_sos) November 8, 2018
Penich-Thacker said the reason Prop. 305 failed was because of the state of public education funding. She said the pro-voucher crowd has to take a step back and deal with that issue before trying to return with another attempt at voucher expansion.
“This is actually not a voucher issue,” she said. “This is a public education issue.”
As long as funding remains where it is, she said there is no voucher conversation to be had.
Arizona’s voucher program, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, pays parents or guardians 90 percent of the money that would have gone to a student’s public school. The money can be spent on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. The program began in 2011 for only special needs students and has grown to allow an array of students, such as ones from failing schools and children whose parents are in the military.
Save Our Schools Arizona has said the program takes money out of public schools without any accountability.
If the pro-voucher side wants to talk about making alterations to the existing program, she said they need to want to get bugs out of the current system first. She said many voters’ problem was not with vouchers but with a program now plagued with fraud and misuse. Recent headlines have spotlighted hundreds of thousands in ESA funds being used not on educational choice but on personal spending sprees.
And it’s not as if public education funding is not already a priority.
The issue was at the top of politicians’ minds even before thousands of teachers and support staff went on strike and marched on the Capitol.
Penich-Thacker said pro-voucher lawmakers have always told her they care about public schools and only wanted to offer vouchers as another option.
“We’re all grownups. We’re all familiar with the idea that you have to prioritize things,” she said. “So, if they are telling the truth and they do support the choice of public education, then that’s the priority conversation.”
But some on the side of ESAs have doubled down on their support for voucher expansion.
The American Federation for Children ultimately opted to stand against Prop. 305, fearing that the state’s Voter Protection Act would have locked the law in place, including an enrollment cap of 30,000 students.
But spokeswoman Kim Martinez said the ESA program will not be sidelined.
“It’s short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today,” Martinez said in an email. “The recent campaign of misinformation, confusing Arizonans on ESAs, was a disservice.”
She pointed out the expansion may have failed but students will still have access to the program. She said 250,000 students will be eligible to apply next year under current eligibility categories.
Other voucher proponents stood by Prop. 305 and appear undeterred by its failure or promises that SOS Arizona isn’t going away now that they’ve won.
The day after the election, the Goldwater Institute declared its intentions to continue the fight, emphasizing that Prop. 305 would have expanded the availability of vouchers to all students.
“Arizona has been a national leader on the path to greater school choice for families,” Goldwater President and CEO Victor Riches said in a press release. “The Goldwater Institute will continue the fight to give students and their families a greater say in their education in Arizona and across the country.”