A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a school voucher expansion that supporters framed as a civil rights issue and opponents decried as a repudiation of Arizona voters who overwhelmingly rejected universal vouchers two years ago.
Senate Education Committee chair Paul Boyer and the four other Republicans on his committee voted to approve Boyer’s SB1452, which would extend eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to students from low-income families or who attend a school where 40 percent of students are from poor families.
Students with disabilities, who live on Native American reservations, whose parents serve in the military or were killed in the line of duty or who attend a D- or F-rated public school are already eligible, as are their siblings. Fewer than 10,000 students now participate, at a cost of about $145 million.
Boyer, R-Glendale, said his bill will extend a lifeline to struggling students. Low-income students who already lacked advantages in school are now having a harder time because of Covid and an increasing reliance on digital technology, he said.
“We are trying to help students who are drowning, who are struggling, who are anywhere from 12 to 16 months behind in their education,” he said.
Beth Lewis, executive director of the public school advocacy organization Save Our Schools Arizona, warned that passing Boyer’s bill would just result in another statewide vote on the voucher program, which she predicts he’ll lose. Save Our Schools formed in 2017 to refer a universal voucher expansion bill to the ballot, where voters overwhelmingly rejected it in November 2018.
“We would love to see you on the campaign trail in 2022 talking about tonight’s vote,” Lewis said.
The bill has support from groups including the American Federation for Children and the Goldwater Institute. Boyer deferred many questions about the bill to Matt Beienburg, Goldwater’s director of education policy, but denied that Beienburg or the Goldwater Institute drafted the legislation.
A small group of black pastors, mothers and educators joined Boyer outside the Senate before the hearing to garner support for the bill, which they depicted as a civil rights issue. Phoenix Pastor Drew Anderson said he believes he only made it to college and a career in professional football because he received a scholarship to one of the best private high schools in Chicago instead of attending his local public school that had a 57% dropout rate.
“School choice is the civil rights issue of this era,” Anderson said.
Democrats on the committee said they agree with the concerns behind the bill, but they don’t think expanding vouchers is the right approach.
Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, said she’s tired of hearing about minorities in the context of school vouchers. Two years ago, Republican lawmakers from the East Valley rushed through last-minute legislation to continue providing vouchers for Navajo students who broke state law by attending a school in New Mexico. Peshlakai and her seatmates who represent the Navajo nation were not involved in drafting those bills.
“The only time politicians are interested in the poor and the people of color and the minorities is when there’s money to be made in the process,” she said.
And Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, was skeptical that the bill would end up helping low-income students. As written, the bill applies to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch or receive either targeted assistance through the Title I programs — but it also could cover rich or middle-class students who happen to attend a Title I school, defined as a school where at least 40 percent of students live in poverty.
“This is for all practical purposes a universal voucher,” Marsh said.
Marsh also objected to a portion of the bill that would require school districts in wealthy areas with high tax revenue who don’t qualify for additional state aid to use their property tax funding to support students who would have attended schools in those districts but instead use a voucher. She introduced an amendment to require a two-thirds vote on the bill because she believes it constitutes an increase in state revenues, but Republicans on the committee voted it down.
Boyer’s bill also will allow students to use their voucher funds for transportation costs, including a bus pass, and it would permit parents of high schoolers to use another program that provides scholarships offset by tax credits to attend private schools.