The Legislature has another bill that would appear to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program to a small group of students living near the Arizona-Utah border.
Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, introduced HB 2898, which would expand ESA vouchers to non-public schools within two miles of the state border for students who live on reservations or who reside in a town with fewer than 10,000 residents in a county with a population between 150,000 and 500,000, if the town straddles the border between Arizona and a neighboring state.
Like the similar expansion effort in the Senate from Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who’s sponsoring an effort for students on the Navajo Nation, Cobb’s bill also targets a specific group of people.
In 2019, three students living in the polygamous town of Colorado City were told they could not use ESA money on their school, which relocated into the neighboring town of Hildale, Utah. The Arizona Department of Education informed the family the school would no longer qualify since it is not in state, but told them they could appeal the decision.
“That’s just not right,” Cobb said.
The department said the decision was never appealed.
Colorado City, a town known for its association with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has a population of just under 5,000 and crosses the border with Utah. It’s not the only town that fits the bill, but seems to be the most notable.
The bill was only assigned to the Appropriations and Rules Committees, not Education, which would typically be the committee to hear this type of bill. Notably no ESA bills in the Senate in 2019 were assigned to that chamber’s Education Committee likely due to not having enough votes to pass. Cobb, the Appropriations Committee chair, said she has nothing to do with committee assignments and does not know why it wasn’t assigned to education.
Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers said he assigned it to Appropriations because it was Cobb’s bill, and that he didn’t recall there being a concern about getting enough votes in the Education Committee.
Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, one of five Democrats on the House Education Committee, said he does not support the expansion because he thinks Arizona taxpayer dollars should only be spent in Arizona.
“I think it would be misguided for us as a state to say that we’re going to be good stewards of your resources and then allow those resources to go to a Utah private institution,” he said.
Bolding said there needs to be a good enough reason to ask voters whether they are comfortable with taxpayer money being used out-of-state, but this example would not qualify.
The controversial idea of expanding the voucher program has widely been seen as a partisan issue, so it’s nothing new for a Democrat to oppose this latest attempt, but Bolding believes the schools in-state should be prioritized ahead of those not.
“We should have schools that are providing a quality education no matter where they’re at. So if that’s creating another school that’s high quality in Colorado City that can serve the constituents there, then that’s what we have to do,” Bolding said.
It sets a bad precedent to have students abandon their community because a school may not be working well, he said.
Bolding said his biggest concern is where ESA expansions would end if this were to pass. The program began just to help students with disabilities attend a private or alternative school that better suits their needs. Little by little it expanded to more students. Its first year had roughly 150 students who qualified, and latest numbers put that total around 7,000.
“I think any further expansion … would be misguided,” Bolding said.
Voters soundly rejected an expansion effort in 2018 by a two-to-one margin, but the Legislature has continued its attempts. In addition, Gov. Doug Ducey has put his support behind Allen’s Senate bill, which has already cleared both Education and Rules committees and will likely get a floor vote soon.