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Republicans vote to expand voucher program, revamp oversight

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Republican senators advanced a bill that would expand eligibility for Arizona’s school voucher program and strip oversight of those vouchers from the newly elected Democratic head of the Department of Education.

On 6-4 party lines votes, lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee approved both SB1395 and SB1320. Sponsored by advocates of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, Arizona’s version of vouchers, the bills were criticized as a subversion of the will of the voters.

It was only months ago that voters rejected a sweeping effort to expand vouchers, Democratic senators and opponents noted.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, the sponsor of SB1395, presented the measure as needed reforms for the ESA program that would provide more certainty for the parents who are given state dollars to pay for specialized, private or parochial education for their children.

The Snowflake Republican argued that the voters’ overwhelming rejection of Proposition 305, a ballot referral to block a 2017 law expanding access to the ESA program, sent a different message to lawmakers.

Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake)

Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake)

“This debate over Prop. 305 was over the expansion, and not over the reforms in that original bill,” she said. Her bill is only about reforms, she added.

But even some Republicans on the committed conceded that the bill would certainly grant more schoolchildren access to the ESA program, both by broadening the school boundary lines that determine if a student is being served by a failing school and widening the age range at which children can enter the ESA program without having first attended a public school.

Still, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said he doesn’t believe Allen’s legislation is an expansion bill.

“If you change a definition and it snags a few extra folks, I don’t know if that’s really an expansion,” Mesnard said. He added that the failure of Prop. 305 “should not paralyze” the Legislature in attempts to improve the ESA program.

A legion of red-clad teachers and parents testified that Mesnard and Allen’s consideration of what “expansion” means was flawed, as did the Finance Committee’s four Democrats.

“What I am opposed to, what my constituents are opposed to, is expanding vouchers and expanding this program,” said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Chandler.

A host of parents that utilize the ESA program said there are other key provisions in SB1395 that will ensure they’re using the program’s funding responsibly and efficiently.

Dr. April Adams, a mother from Gilbert with a 6-year-old son, said Allen’s intent is to reform, not expand, the voucher program.

“One of the most frustrating things is not knowing how we can spend money for our son,” she said.

Other parents shared similar stories of frustrations with the advice they receive from the Department of Education on the use of their ESA funding. Misspending funds can result in those dollars being frozen for parents.

Dissatisfaction with ESA management was also at the heart of the debate on SB1320. Sponsored by Sen. David Livingston, the bill would place management and oversight of vouchers in the hands of State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, a Republican.

In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Kathy Hoffman, a public school speech therapist, is a Democratic candidate running for superintendent of public education, in Phoenix. Hoffman is running against three-term California congressman Frank Riggs, the founding president of an online charter school. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Kathy Hoffman . (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Livingston, a Peoria Republican, denied that it was his intent to strip oversight from the new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman, because she’s a Democrat. It’s his intent that the treasurer’s office would hire a third party vendor to run the ESA program, he previously told the Arizona Capitol Times.

And Mesnard claimed that Livingston’s proposal was no new idea — a nearly identical bill was sponsored last year while a Republican still served as superintendent, he said.

The Arizona Capitol Times could find no record of such a bill sponsored in 2018.

Allen’s SB1395 would also strip the education department of its ESA management duties by requiring, rather than allowing, the department to hire a private vendor to operate the program.

Democrats urged Livingston to table his proposal in favor of giving Hoffman more time to begin running the program. They cited rave reviews from parents who utilize vouchers of Karla Escobar, who Hoffman hired as ESA director on January 12.

And Hoffman recently formed a task force with ESA supporters and opponents to research better ways to serve the ESA community.

Sen. Lupe Contreras urged parents that use ESAs for their children to have patience while voting against both bills.

“Let things happen. There’s positive change coming,” said Contreras, D-Avondale. “Let it take its course, and you might be very happen with what you see if you just give it a chance.”

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