Legislature passes biggest ESA expansion in country

Legislature passes biggest ESA expansion in country

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The Arizona state Legislature pushed out a bill that greatly expands empowerment scholarship accounts that students can use to go into private schools in a historic move on Friday night that makes this the biggest “voucher” expansion in the country. 

House Bill 2853, which was sponsored by House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, passed along party lines in both the House and Senate. Democrats opposed it, saying it would divert money from public schools and give private schools an advantage even though they don’t have to be transparent with the way they spend taxpayer money. 

“Public schools have to educate everyone and they should,” Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said. “That is not the case with private schools.” 

Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Cashion, said that while the bill would benefit rich families and “supplement those children to go to Gray Poupon Prep or wherever else they’re going,” it would also encourage dishonest schools to take advantage of poor families. 

“They’re going to prey upon the kids that I represent, the kids and families that I represent, with promises of a great education that you’re not getting because we’re not funding it, but this is a predator’s absolute dream,” Sierra said. 

Republicans argue that the bill supports school choice and lets families educate their kids the way they want to. 

“An opportunity will be given to students who may want to go to that private school, may want to attend a school that is currently out of their reach,” Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge said.  

“What are we debating?” asked Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, as the House debated the bill on Wednesday. “Are we debating supporting schools or are we debating supporting students? Are we going to support the systems or are we going to support the individual needs of that student? I think that we should be supporting the student.” 

Voters struck down a previous, less comprehensive ESA expansion Republican lawmakers attempted in 2018, and an attempt at an initiative referendum to repeal this year’s law is expected as well. HB2853, unlike the previous bill, expands ESA eligibility to every student in Arizona. 

The previously attempted ESA expansion had a monetary cap, but the new bill does not. It also doesn’t require students with ESAs to go to public school before going to private school. 

Democrats tried to add an amendment to the bill that would have required students who get ESA money to take an assessment, require a family to complete an income verification form, give taxpayers information about what schools are accepting ESA students, and more. Republicans would not hear the amendment. 

The Senate engaged in a heated debate over the bill in the appropriations committee, committee of the whole, and third reading before passing the bill 16-10 on party lines. 

Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said he wants private schools to double in Arizona and then double again because that’s what he believes families want.  

“I predict we will see private fly by night academies popping up in strip malls everywhere,” said Save Our Schools Policy Director Melinda Iyer in the committee meeting. “Even the most basic accountability has been stripped out.”