Behind the Ballot: Spread thin


Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8, 2018, after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona voters will be asked to decide the fate of multiple high-profile ballot initiatives on the November ballot.

At the same time, a slew of high-priority races for elected office are vying for their attention – and their money.

If donors are asked repeatedly to open their wallets for both the candidates and the causes they care most about, will the available dollars be spread too thin?

There may be one campaign that they can sit out, at least, as the debate over school choice takes an unexpected turn toward common ground.

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Music in this episode included “Creative Minds,” “Funky Element” and “Energy” by Bensound.

Both sides of voucher war prepare for battles after vote

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8, 2018, after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Opponents of Proposition 305 may soon cry victory over its defeat, but the fight over school choice and Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will not end in November.

The American Federation for Children is officially a “no” on Prop. 305 despite the group’s pro-school choice stance, and Americans for Prosperity won’t be organizing support for the ballot measure.

A no vote will mean the Republican-controlled Legislature’s 2017 expansion of the ESA program will not stand, while a yes vote means it will.

But the group responsible for sending the ESA expansion to the ballot, Save Our Schools Arizona, is not taking the vote for granted, nor preparing to wind down after November.

SOS Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said the dwindling support for Prop. 305 does not signal a change of heart by pro-voucher groups. Rather it tells her that they are willing to take a loss this time and try again during the 2019 legislative session.

So she wants to send a message in the November 6 general election – that even Arizona, a school choice pioneer, will reject the expansion of school vouchers.

“We don’t just want Prop. 305 to lose. We want it to go down in flames,” she said.

Arizona’s empowerment scholarship account program 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.

The Legislature in 2017 expanded the program to allow for all Arizona students to be eligible, but capped the program’s enrollment at about 30,000 by the 2022-2023 school year.  

The fate of Prop. 305 may be mere speculation at this point, but that isn’t stopping advocates and opponents from contemplating what should come next.

Penich-Thacker said SOS Arizona has discussed ideas for an education funding mechanism that could rally bipartisan support.

That mechanism would have to ensure the funding it generates is not then drained by programs like ESAs, though.

“Coming up with a great education funding mechanism is all fine and well,” she said. “But if we’re going to be poking holes in that bucket and draining it right out through unregulated ESAs and STOs, what’s it for?”

She said SOS Arizona has also had preliminary conversations about possibly running or supporting a bill to address accountability and what they see as other shortcomings of the ESA program.

But Penich-Thacker knows they’re not the only ones likely preparing for another shot.

“This is one battle that they’re willing to lose because they’ll be back in January with a different bill number but with the same goal of unregulated, universal ESA voucher expansion,” she said.

There is hope for a compromise, but she’s not so sure if the pro-voucher crowd is on the same page.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said he does not see the point of declaring a position on Prop. 305.

He said there will always be a robust conversation around school choice at the Legislature, and ESAs are part of that no matter what happens with Prop. 305.

He has expressed trepidation over the expansion as written before, particularly because the law and it’s cap of 30,000 students would be protected under the Voter Protection Act. But he can see both sides of the dilemma for school choice advocates like himself.

In the future, he said more consideration could be given to specific carve outs for certain student populations or which enrollment cap may be more “legitimate.”

Education department reverses course, grants military family voucher

Jace Pennington and his stepmother Saquawia Pennington. PHOTO COURTESY AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN
Jace Pennington and his stepmother Saquawia Pennington. PHOTO COURTESY AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN

A 5-year-old Sierra Vista boy denied an Empowerment Scholarship Account and featured in a video posted over the weekend by a school choice organization will get state help paying for private school this fall. 

Children of active-duty military members can qualify for an ESA, but the Arizona Department of Education initially denied Jace Pennington’s application because his stepmother, not a biological parent, is in the Army. 

The department reversed its decision and approved the boy’s application June 28, spokesman Stefan Swiat said, but it didn’t inform the family until July 1, two days after the American Federation for Children posted a seven-minute video about the family that criticized the department.

The video was reminiscent of a dispute that came after the group produced a similar video about a few Navajo families who were told in May that they’d have to repay ESA money they spent at an out-of-state private school in New Mexico.

“In this case we have a special-interest group jumping the gun and creating a video instead of letting due process take effect,” Swiat said. “They didn’t get their acceptance before the video, but we were approving the student on [June 28].”

Swiat placed the blame for the policy that required department staff to reject Pennington’s application on an in-house legal counsel who was with the department during former Superintendent Diane Douglas’ tenure. 

Students can qualify for the ESA program for a host of reasons, including having a disability, attending a D- or F-rated public school, having a sibling who is a current or previous ESA recipient, or being the child of a parent who is on active duty in the military, was killed in the line of duty or is legally blind or deaf. 

Until July 2, a description of eligibility requirements on the department’s website stipulated that students did not qualify if their stepparents were active-duty military members or died in the line of duty. A review of older versions of that web page saved via the Wayback Machine Internet Archive shows that similar, though not identical, language was on the site during Douglas’s term. 

Staff from the Legislative Council and the Attorney General’s Office said the department was incorrectly interpreting state statute, which states simply that “a child of a parent who is a member of the armed forces of the United States and who is on active duty or was killed in the line of duty” can be eligible.

Under advice from the Attorney General’s Office, department staff decided against automatically rejecting stepparents who apply, Swiat said.

“When we see an issue where the stepparent helps the student apply for an ESA, we just require more documentation and more explanation,” he said. “That’s just being a good steward of taxpayer dollars.”  

Joshua Pennington, Jace’s father, said he didn’t know anything about the department re-evaluating his son’s application until he got a phone call July 1. After receiving a denial letter last week, Pennington called former lawmaker Steve Smith, now the state director for the American Federation for Children, to ask for help.

The American Federation for Children, which supports school choice and backed the state’s unsuccessful attempt to expand ESAs, shot a video similar to one it created about Navajo families who were asked to repay ESA funds they spent at an out-of-state school. GOP lawmakers and state and national activists jumped on it and shared the video with outraged commentary.

Smith said the American Federation for Children chose to release a video instead of helping the Penningtons work with the department because the group was unsuccessful in negotiating quietly with the department on behalf of Navajo students before it made its last video.

But Richie Taylor, the communications director for Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, said Smith’s characterization of the organization’s communication with the department on behalf of the Navajo students isn’t entirely accurate.

“They did reach out to the ESA director with questions about what the law said … they did not reach out to the superintendent or the staff,” Taylor said.

After the American Federation for Children released its May video featuring the Navajo families, it no longer had an open line of communication with the department, Smith said.

“Last time we tried to help solve it internally and they weren’t interested,” he said. “If the only thing we can do is let people know what’s going on, that’s what we’re going to do.”

“I don’t know that there’s an open line of communication anymore,” Smith said. “Last time we tried to help solve it internally and they weren’t interested. If the only thing we can do is let people know what’s going on, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Pennington said he’s glad his son will be able to use a voucher next fall, and that the department listened to his family and reconsidered its decision. But he said the stress his family experienced could easily have been avoided. 

“I just feel like we could have skipped some of these hoops if certain people would have read the law the right way,” Pennington said. 

Clarification: The fourth paragraph has been revised to clarify that a dispute came after Arizona Federation for Children created a video, not as a result of it. 

Group hopes to stop school voucher expansion before it takes effect

Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona announces a campaign to repeal the recent expansion of the state's school voucher system on May 8, 2017, at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona announces a campaign to repeal the recent expansion of the state’s school voucher system on May 8, 2017, at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

When Arizona students return to school in August, a new law could make the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts available to all 1.1 million of them. Unless a grassroots group of opponents has its way.

Save Our Schools Arizona has until August 1 to collect the more than 75,000 signatures needed to put S1431 on the 2018 ballot and halt its implementation in the meantime. If the group fails, the expansion will take effect Aug. 9.

Enrollment under the expansion is capped at roughly 5,500 new students per year, which translates to approximately 30,000 spots by 2022.

The group claims there are not enough safeguards on the law and that it would siphon much-needed funds from public schools to serve students who may not need the financial help.

“Arizona’s public school system is already one of the worst funded… It’s the least invested in in the entire country,” said Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker. “We should not be funding and finding programs that take away even more from these starving schools that serve 95 percent of our kids.”

But the law’s supporters say the expansion would give power back to parents and put private schools within reach for kids who could not otherwise afford them.

“It’s just about putting one more option on the table,” said Kim Martinez, the spokeswoman for the American Federation for Children.

S1431 would expand Arizona’s school voucher program, called the Empowerment Scholarship Account, which redirects the money that would be spent on a child’s public school into an account the family can draw on to pay for a private or religious school.

The accounts were created in 2011 for students with disabilities and have gradually been expanded to include children on reservations, military kids, those who are wards of the state and those in failing schools, among other categories.

The state is not yet accepting applications for the expanded program, but interested families can get on a list to be notified by the Arizona Department of Education when the application is available.

Arizona has been a leader in private school voucher programs, but other states have followed suit. Indiana has one of the nation’s largest school choice programs, the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, in which eligibility is determined by income, so that low-income students benefit.

Critics note that there is no such limit on applications under the new Arizona program, where rolling applications are determined on a first-come, first-served basis, according to state education officials.

“If it was true that they wanted to help low-income families, they would’ve put an income cap,” Penich-Thacker said, arguing that the vouchers have only helped affluent families.

Martinez dismisses the suggestion that ESA takes money from the public school system, arguing that the money never belonged to the schools in the first place. Because the state allocates funding per student, not per school, she said, parents should be able to decide where that money is spent.

To Chris Perea, a teacher at Gateway Academy in Phoenix, the current ESA program has been life-saving for his students. He said most of them would not otherwise be able to afford to go to the school that specializes in children with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism.

“Our students start to blossom within weeks of getting to our school. Our students begin to love life again,” said Perea, a former public school teacher.

He said that nearly 80 percent of Gateway students are able to attend the school thanks to the ESA program.

“It’s allowing these students access to what’s best for them. It allows the parents to put them in schools that can specialize to meet the needs of their students,” he said.

Not all teachers are fans of expanding private school vouchers.

Christina Marsh, the 2016 Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year, said vouchers siphons off money from the general fund to subsidize more affluent students’ education, and that places more vulnerable populations at a disadvantage.

“I’m mad and I’m sad. It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Marsh, who plans to run for the state Senate in 2018. “We do have the money. We are just not spending it where it needs to be spent, and the voucher program is just one more example of that.”

Group starts campaign to put school voucher restrictions on ballot


An organization of public school supporters wants voters to limit the number of vouchers of state tax dollars that parents can use to send their children to private and parochial schools.

The initiative drive launched Wednesday by Save Our Schools would prohibit the state from issuing vouchers to more than 1 percent of the total number of children enrolled in public schools. There are about 1.1 million students in traditional district and charter schools, setting the cap at about 11,000.

Priority would be given to students with disabilities, first to those who already get vouchers and then to students with disabilities still in public schools. Then, if there were still vouchers available, first priority would go to those students who already had received vouchers and, finally, to students in other categories the legislature has determined are eligible.

Dawn Penich Thacker
Dawn Penich Thacker

That broad list includes not just students with disabilities but also children in foster care, children of active duty military, students attending schools rated D or F and all students living on Indian reservations.

To keep that list from expanding even farther, the proposal would prohibit lawmakers from creating new categories. It also would prohibit parents from saving the state funds they get for K-12 education and instead set them aside for college tuition, a practice that now is legal.

And the proposal also requires that any public dollars in vouchers be used in the state.

That is significant, coming the same day the Arizona Senate gave preliminary approval to allow the use of vouchers at schools outside of the state within two miles of the Arizona border.

This is designed to help students living on the Navajo Reservation who want to attend private schools in New Mexico. But as worded it would allow any student to attend any private school just outside the state’s border.

Backers have until July 2 to gather 237,645 valid signatures on petitions to put the issue on the November ballot.

Save Our Schools has a track record on this issue − and their ability to put issues on the ballot. This is the same organization which two years ago got voters, by a nearly 2-1 margin, to override a move by Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers to eventually allow any of the state’s 1.1 million students in public schools get vouchers.

The problem, according to Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the organizers of Save Our Schools, is that Arizona lawmakers didn’t listen to the results of the 2018 vote and aren’t listening now.

“The last two legislative sessions we’ve been beating back seven different voucher expansion bills,” she said.

“We finally realized they’re never going to stop until we stop them,” Penich-Thacker said. “So the only way to stop politicians from working against the voters is to do a voter-protected initiative.”

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, speaks during a Joint Border Security Advisory Committee at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Ariz. Smith, the Republican chair of Arizona Senate committee considering Gov. Doug Ducey's wide-ranging school safety proposal, vowed Thursday, April 19, 2018, to ensure that whatever plan passes the GOP-controlled Legislature protects gun rights and has support from the National Rifle Association.. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, speaks during a Joint Border Security Advisory Committee at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. He is now the director of the American Federation for Children. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Simply put, once voters enact something at the ballot, the Arizona Constitution forbids lawmakers from repealing it or making major changes unless they “further the purpose” of the original measure. And even then it requires a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate.

There are about 8,200 students now receiving vouchers, well within the 1 percent of the 1.1 million students in public schools, with a price tag of about $110 million.

“We wanted to find a spot that didn’t kick off anyone who’s currently in the program but didn’t allow massive growth because we want to refocus on the public schools and the funding for public schools that 95 percent of kids are in,” Penich-Thacker explained. “It’s a reasonable limit.”

More significant, she said, is the requirement for the priority to go to students with disabilities − the original reason that vouchers were enacted in the first place.

“The legislature has never seen fit to take care of special needs students in the ESA program as much as they use them as pawns,” Penich-Thacker said. She said the change, if approved by voters, will mean that “over time this program serves the students they say it was designed to serve.”

In 2018 Save Our Schools gathered virtually all the signatures they needed with volunteers. But the number needed this time is greater. And Penich-Thacker said her organization does have some funds available but would not disclose the amount or the source at this point.

That information eventually is required to become public.The proposal is provoking kickback from various groups which have supported the concept of vouchers.

“This recent political threat by Save Our Schools falls right in line with their track record of stomping on Native American children, children with special needs, and low-income children simply because these families may choose to pursue education opportunities outside of the public school system,” said Steve Smith, state director of American Federation for Children in a prepared statement. “If we truly want what’s best for each individual student, then let the parents make that decision, not a partisan lobbying group like Save Our Schools.”

“Arizona already has more school choice than any state in the nation,” Penich-Thacker countered, noting out that the state has not only open enrollment allowing students to any public school they want but also an extensive network of charter schools, both nonprofit and for profit. She said parents who want something else should not be able to use public dollars.

“It’s not an endless aquifer,” Penich-Thacker said.

“We need more educational opportunities, not fewer, especially for low-income children who have even greater needs,” said Matt Beienburg, the Goldwater Institute director of education policy in a prepared statement. “We should be working to give them the same access other families have to schooling options, not locking them out from them.”

High rate of Indian students denied school vouchers

Jar for coinsThe Arizona Department of Education and a school choice advocacy group place blame on each other for the dismal acceptance rate among Indian children who apply for school vouchers.

Students living within the boundaries of Indian reservations are eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers, which allow qualified students to use public money to attend a private or parochial school, yet a high percentage have been denied in the last two school years.

According to data from the Arizona Department of Education, 99 of 233 applications for students living on reservations, or about 43 percent, were denied for the 2017-2018 school year. Of those, 58 students were rejected because they had not attended a public school for the first 100 days of the prior school year.

Another 24 applications were denied because they simply were not complete; 11 were missing a birth certificate or signatures; two students were not eligible to attend kindergarten when they applied; two did not reside within the reservation boundaries; and two more did not provide proof of residency.

In an email to the Arizona Capitol Times, ADE spokesman Stefan Swiat said the department tries to “get the best information possible in [parents’] hands” to understand eligibility requirements before they apply for their children.

In particular, he pointed to the high number of students denied for not meeting a public school enrollment requirement.

The department’s website does lay out specific requirements for different groups of qualified students. For students on reservations, the requirements include attendance at a state district or charter school for the first 100 days of the prior school year. Alternatively, those students could have received scholarships from a School Tuition Organization, or STO.

“It’s unfortunate for the students and the parents that such a high percentage of denials are being issued for an eligibility requirement that is clearly outlined in the application,” Swiat said.

The assumption being that some families may have been wrongly informed or even misled about their eligibility.

Advocates who have worked with families on reservations reject that notion.

Kim Martinez
Kim Martinez

Kim Martinez, spokeswoman for the American Federation for Children, said the state Department of Education should have a special set of procedures when working with tribal families lest they slip through the cracks. The American Federation for Children has been a staunch supporter of the expansion of ESAs and school choice in Arizona.

Martinez said the department’s ESA office has incorrectly denied families or issued denials based on small errors that could have been corrected. Rather, families may just give up.

“They cannot take a systemic approach with these families,” she said. “After receiving a denial letter, that understandably causes the tribal parent to give up and stop pursuing an ESA.”

A similar trend is developing among the applications for the 2018-2019 school year.

Not all of those applications have been processed yet, but the department did provide tallies for those that have.

As of August 7, a determination had not been made for 130 of 213 applications received for students living on reservations. Of those that were resolved, 55 were approved, and 24 were denied – that’s a denial rate of about 30 percent.

The remaining four applications were simply closed. According to ADE’s parent handbook, an account may be closed upon request, because an application for renewal was not received on time, because a student exited the program upon turning 18 or completing the 12th grade, or because the student was removed from the ESA program.

Swiat did not immediately return requests for an update on the applications that have been processed.

Hoffman, school choice group clash over voucher program

Gilbert parent Christine Accurso in a video produced by the American Federation for Children describes long wait times in trying to get her child signed up for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. (Photo courtesy of YouTube)
Gilbert parent Christine Accurso in a video produced by the American Federation for Children describes long wait times in trying to get her child signed up for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

A school choice organization fired its third broadside in as many months against the Arizona Department of Education, accusing the Democratic administration of playing fast and loose with state laws to stifle the voucher program.

The attack prompted some education officials to speculate that it’s the latest attempt to wrest control of the program, which provides state money so children can attend private schools, from Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.

A video published July 18 on YouTube by the American Federation for Children (AFC) describes long wait times for parents with questions about Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

It comes on the heels of two other recent videos, the first of which in May was about the department demanding Navajo families repay ESA money they erroneously spent at a New Mexico private school. A second video one month later featured a Sierra Vista boy who was initially rejected from the ESA program because although he has an active-duty military parent, the parent was his stepmother and not a biological parent.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

Each video sparked calls for scrutiny of Hoffman’s handling of the program. Richie Taylor, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the attacks are part of a concerted effort to remove the ESA program from the department’s control.

“They [the American Federation for Children] want to show the department can’t properly manage the program and ultimately would like to see it privatized,” Taylor said.

The latest video features a Gilbert mother, Christine Accurso, who said she has spent countless hours on hold with the department’s ESA hotline. It also shows emails from other parents who sought answers to questions they had about their children’s voucher contracts before the expiration of the 45-day period they have to sign those contracts.

Accurso said her main concern was to be heard by the department and get her questions answered before her son was set to start at a new school.

Unlike other parents, Accurso didn’t make any other attempts to contact the department by voicemail or by email. But she did make calls over roughly a two-month span dating back to May.

However, according to the department, she eventually talked on the phone with Karla Escobar, the ESA director, on July 23 for 30 minutes, had her questions answered and even thanked both Escobar and Hoffman for calling.

Department officials say Accurso’s long wait times are another example of insufficient funding for the program. State law allows for up to 4% of the funds allocated for the ESA program to be used for administration, but lawmakers only authorized a portion of that.

Diane Douglas
Diane Douglas

Both Hoffman and her Republican predecessor, Diane Douglas, pushed for more funds to administer the voucher program. The department now receives about $1.25 million for ESA administration, and spends about half of that on employee pay and benefits.

To make matters worse, of the 13 full-time positions responsible for the ESA program, only nine employees are currently available at the department each day, department spokesman Stefan Swiat said. One position is vacant, Swiat said, while three other employees are on extended leave.

That leaves three employees in management positions, three employees responsible for monitoring fraud and other reports, and three workers handling applications, the phone lines and emails.

About 6,500 Arizona students use vouchers, meaning each employee in the ESA office has a caseload of hundreds of students.

Even a full staff of 13 workers wouldn’t be enough, Swiat said. ESA management estimates it would take 30 employees to properly handle the number of applications and questions the department fields from ESA parents.

“If anyone is running a small business, they would never create a model that would put this much burden on so few employees,” Swiat said.

‘Strings Attached’

While the department describes long wait times as proof more administrative funding is needed, critics including Accurso, the AFC and Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, say the department has enough money.

AFC spokeswoman Kim Martinez said Hoffman balked at the chance to receive the full 4% of funds during the legislative session.

Martinez said Allen’s SB1395, which would have expanded vouchers, also would have given Hoffman millions more in administrative funding, though department officials said the eleventh-hour offer for funding came with unacceptable strings attached

Hoffman opposed the bill, which budget analysts determined would increase eligibility to the ESA program and thus draw more dollars from the state general fund as more families apply for the voucher program.

Though there was no language in SB1395 to provide such funding, Swiat said Allen did attempt to revive the bill by offering administrative funding. In exchange, Allen asked Hoffman to line up votes for the bill.

Sylvia Allen
Sylvia Allen

That offer came without specifics and “without any assurances about whether ADE would have that spending authority in perpetuity,” Swiat said. “In short, we didn’t believe the bill would pass and we weren’t going to whip votes for Senator Allen with no assurance that we would have access to the money that the law says that we should receive.”

Allen, who did not respond to a request for comment, has previously said she tried to assuage Hoffman’s concerns and had promised to remove any language that was considered an expansion of the ESA program, though no such deletion was ever adopted.

Martinez said there was no doubt Hoffman turned down the chance to add more money to administer the ESA program.

“By Hoffman’s own admission in her statement, she says she wanted the money offered but didn’t want the ‘strings attached’ — as in the other parts of the bill. Senator Allen was pretty clear in her statements in the video of how everything happens,” Martinez said.

Accurso said she followed Allen’s bill during session and didn’t want to be used as a political pawn to increase the department’s budget.

“I had this gut instinct, just because I had my antenna up politically, that I don’t want her to use this as an excuse for new funding, and that’s exactly what she’s done,” Accurso said.

And Steve Smith, the former lawmaker who now works as state director for the American Federation for Children, said it doesn’t matter how much funding the department receives.

“You can’t break the law because you didn’t get what you wanted in the budget,” Smith said. “You are statutorily obligated to give those families a response within 45 days and just because you maybe didn’t get what you wanted doesn’t mean you can skirt the law.”

More Videos

The video marks the latest rift in the relationship between Hoffman and the school choice organization and Republican lawmakers who support its mission. 

Smith represented AFC on an ESA Task Force created by Hoffman in February, but after the organization released its first video the superintendent said “trust was broken” between the two and decided to remove Smith. 

Mark Finchem
Mark Finchem

That set into motion what Taylor, the department spokesman, speculates is AFC’s goal to privatize and “find ways to expand (the program) allowing students to be sent out of state for school.”

The videos have already stirred outrage among some Republican lawmakers. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, responded to the latest video by calling on Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate Hoffman for “letting her personal disapproval of the ESA program affect her legal obligation to follow the law.” 

Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said they’re focused on working with the department and “assisting the agency however we can to help fulfill their statutory duties and meet the timely needs of Arizona families who want to enroll in the ESA program.”

Anderson said Brnovich’s office is “optimistic” that, moving forward, ADE will have the legal advice and resources needed to successfully manage the program.

AFC is likely not done making videos at this point, Smith said. 

He said there’s no shortage of parents who have issues with the ESA program, and the group will continue producing videos as needed. 

“We’ll continue to make the public aware as long as ADE continues to not do their job,” he said.

Livingston accuses Blanc of doctoring referendum petitions, calls for resignation

Rep. Isela Blanc (D-Tempe)
Rep. Isela Blanc (D-Tempe)

A Republican lawmaker said Democratic Rep. Isela Blanc should fully comply with any investigation into allegations she or others doctored petitions to help get a referendum of school voucher expansion on the ballot, and if she’s found in the wrong, resign from office.

But it’s unclear if anyone, be it the Attorney General’s Office or the House Ethics Committee, is going to investigate those allegations.

A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Brnovich said their office is evaluating whether those allegations, brought by an attorney for the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children, are significant enough to merit charges of a felony violation of state law. And Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, has not yet determined if he’ll proceed with an ethics investigation requested by Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria.

Despite the lack of a pending investigation or charges against Blanc, a first-term Tempe Democrat, Livingston said it’s not too soon to jump to the conclusion that Blanc either committed a crime, or is aware of someone with the campaign to refer a bill expanding access to school vouchers to the ballot who committed a crime.

Rep. David Livingston (R-Peoria)
Rep. David Livingston (R-Peoria)

In his complaint, filed against Blanc on August 30, Livingston cited allegations brought forward by Timothy La Sota, an attorney for the AFC, as evidence that a petition sheet Blanc was photographed with was improperly circulated in violation of state law. In his complaint, he also echoed questions from La Sota as to whether she falsified that petition sheet, leading Livingston to declare that Blanc “has unequivocally engaged in disorderly conduct” in violation of House rules.

Livingston said he’s confident the attorney general can suss out the truth, and that Blanc should be prepared to leave office depending on the outcome.

“Either she’s going to help us prosecute, help the attorney general prosecute who did it if it was not her. If it was her, she should resign. And if she doesn’t, she’ll get expelled. I just think it’s easy,” Livingston said.

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said Livingston’s accusations against a fellow lawmaker are premature, and she questioned the motives behind his filing of an ethics complaint.

“I can’t help but wonder how much of this has to do with sheer frustration by the Republicans at the highly successful grassroots effort to overturn their beloved ESA bill. And that’s just a question, but that is a question that immediately came to mind when I found out the basis of the ethics filing,” Rios said.

As for Livingston’s claims of Blanc’s guilt, “he appears to be putting himself as judge and jury on this issue. And the reality is, there’s a process that needs to play out,” she said.

Blanc has not returned several calls for comment.

La Sota has questioned the validity of at least four petitions sheets, including one circulated by Blanc, and questioned if someone from the SOS Arizona campaign systematically corrected petition sheets in violation of state law.

“It is hard to believe that someone who was given responsibility for handling the petition sheets did not go through and ‘fix’ legally insufficient petitions sheets on a systematic basis,” La Sota wrote in an email.

Mesa homeschooled students given ESA vouchers by mistake


An error by Mesa Public Schools could lead to 27 homeschooled students losing access to the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program they were mistakenly granted.

If it hadn’t been for one parent whose son was rescinded an ESA voucher months after mistakenly being approved, the Arizona Department of Education may have never found out about the bigger issue.

Mike Retel applied for his son, Emerson, to get an ESA in February for the 2019-20 school year and was approved. His son has a learning disability, which qualifies him for the voucher, but to be eligible all students also need to be full-time at a public school. Emerson was homeschooled.

So in June, four months after being approved, Retel applied again for his other children to receive ESAs. The law states that if one child is qualified, all siblings will be as well. However, in doing so the department realized Emerson never should have been approved in the first place; so the department rescinded his approval on July 2 – mere weeks before the start of the school year.

ESAs allow parents or guardians to use taxpayer money that would have gone to a student’s public school on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. The ESA program began specifically for special needs students, and has since grown to allow an array of students – from failing schools and children whose parents are in the military. 

Emerson attended Eagleridge Enrichment Center in Mesa, which a spokeswoman for Mesa Public Schools confirmed is not a full-time public school. Eagleridge’s website describes it as “providing innovative enrichment opportunities and support for all homeschooled students.” 

“It’s homeschool enrichment, so most students would attend one or two days a week,” Heidi Hurst said.

Students attending Eagleridge were already on the ESA program through the department, though, which only made Retel more upset with why he thought he was being targeted. 

A letter to Retel from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office said the office will review the files of “other Eagleridge attendees to determine their eligibility.” 

Hurst said Eagleridge has identified 27 students as being in the ESA program. 

The reason some students received ESA money was due to a reporting error about the school’s status last year, Hurst said. 

Hurst said it would ultimately be up to the department to decide if those students would lose their voucher money in the future.

“I don’t want others to lose funding,” Retel said, adding he just wants his son to get the education he needs. 

Not knowing what to do, Retel took the advice of other parents to reach out to the American Federation for Children, a school-choice organization, for assistance, but said no progress has been made yet other than some advice the group gave him.

Steve Smith, the state director for AFC, and Kim Martinez, the spokeswoman, both wanted to know why it took so long for Retel to find out about his son’s status, and the answer, according to the department, comes back to the Legislature.

Richie Taylor, a department spokesman, said when Retel applied for his other children in June, that was when processing ESA contracts for the upcoming school year was just beginning. Until a state budget is finalized, the department has no way of knowing how much money will go to each voucher for the students who do qualify, Taylor said. 

The legislative session this year lasted 134 days, which was the longest since 2013, giving the current administration far less time for processing applications. In contrast, the department under Diane Douglas’s never had a session end past May 10. 

Retel told the Arizona Capitol Times the revocation left him with minimal time to find another school, something he still has yet to accomplish.

This latest ESA controversy follows three videos in three months from AFC criticizing the Department of Education and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman for mishandling the underfunded program. 

The department demanded Navajo families repay ESA money they erroneously spent at a New Mexico private school. A second video one month later featured a Sierra Vista boy who was initially rejected from the ESA program because he has an active-duty military parent, but the parent was his stepmother, not a biological parent. And in July a parent complained about the unusually long wait times she had to deal with over the phone while trying to get answers in a timely manner.

Taylor and Hoffman both have adamantly talked about how the department needs the full funding that the Legislature is holding hostage to be able to properly run the program. It’s a complaint Douglas shared, too.

State law allows for up to 4% of the funds allocated for the ESA program to be used for administration, but lawmakers only authorized a portion of that.

Both the current and former superintendents pushed for more funds to administer the voucher program. The department now receives about $1.25 million for ESA administration, and spends about half of that on employee pay and benefits.

Taylor said if the Legislature fully funded the program they could more than double the size of the staff of the ESA team and provide the level of service families deserve. Right now there are 13 full-time positions responsible for the ESA program, but only nine employees are currently available at the department each day. 

“This isn’t a political game or strategy by Hoffman’s administration. We simply need more money to manage a program that continues to grow,” Taylor said. “To suggest that they want anything other than the best for these students is both offensive and wrong.”

Observers keep eyes on signature validation process of voucher referendum

(Photo courtesy of Save Our Schools Arizona)
Observers who are for and against a referendum campaign to refer school voucher legislation to the 2018 ballot crowd around tables on August 9 as signatures are reviewed by employees at the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. Observers were allowed to view the process of signature validation for transparency, according to representatives of the office. (Photo courtesy of Save Our Schools Arizona)

The process of verifying signatures to block a law expanding school vouchers has built up the scrutiny of Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s effort to be more transparent.

Observers are routinely allowed to watch as elections officials count and verify petitions gathered when Arizona voters want to challenge a new law. But never before have so many observers engaged in the process, according to election officials and attorneys.

Observers who oppose efforts to stop ESA expansion have raised objections as signatures are verified, according to Roopali Desai, an attorney for Save Our Schools Arizona, which this week turned in 111,540 signatures in opposition to SB1431.

“You can have observers, but they’re just that,” Desai said. “They’re not active participants in the process. They’re not really permitted to interfere and make objections and have their objections heard and weighed and decided in real time.”

Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Reagan, said that observers have had no impact on the quality of the work undertaken by elections workers to de-staple, scan, and review thousands of pages of petitions filed by SOS Arizona.

Conversations between observers and election workers are strictly monitored, he added.

“I think right at the beginning of the process, observers were making comments,” Roberts said. “Within a couple of moments of our staff learning about that, we put a stop to it.”

Chatter on Twitter and other forms of social media has left some with the impression that volunteer observers are the ones working to verify the signatures. Tom Jenney, director of the Arizona chapter of Americans For Prosperity, wrote a Facebook post calling for volunteers to protect the law and “help us verify signature petitions.”

State Elections Director Eric Spencer said no one verifies signatures but the Secretary of State’s Office.

“We are applying the law to the petitions, we are conducting the verification,” Spencer said. “At most, observers are documenting issues that they want to get a second look at at some point in the future, or maybe bring to the attention of a court. But they’re not verifying anything.”

Signatures can still be checked by volunteers and attorneys alike after the Secretary of State’s Office finishes counting petitions, Spencer said. Attorneys routinely challenge signatures in court, which is likely where the referendum on SB 1431 is headed.

Given the heightened interest in the referendum, and how close the outcome might be, Spencer said the decision was initially made to allow more observers.

That effort is admirable, Desai said, but it has left SOS Arizona’s volunteer force confused about the process and concerned that observers who want to see the referendum fail may have undermined the work of the Secretary of State’s Office. No written guidelines were available at the outset, she said.

Spencer told observers in the afternoon of August 10 that he had put a policy in writing that morning.

“I’m this close to having all observers leave,” Spencer told Sharon Kirsch, a volunteer with SOS Arizona, and Timothy La Sota, an attorney for the American Federation for Children, the group opposing the referendum.

Kirsch said the policies governing observers have changed day to day.

“It’s frustrating. We had people pounding the pavement all summer, and our volunteers are concerned about what’s happening here. There’s never been this level of scrutiny,” Kirsch said.

When asked about accusations that her volunteers had muddied the verification process, Kim Martinez, a spokeswoman for the American Federation for Children, said they’ve been pleased with the observation access thus far.

“From our side, we’ve been happy to be here, and we have not minded at all that both sides are here for fairness. It’s completely fine that both sides are observing this process,” Martinez said. “I think it’s good that we’re here and able to actually see what’s going on and fight for our sides.”

Republicans paint Democrat Hoffman as state’s political fiend

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. Hoffman is one of the first Democrats elected to statewide office in more than 10 years and Republicans have been demonizing her politically. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. Hoffman is one of the first Democrats elected to statewide office in more than 10 years and Republicans have been demonizing her politically. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

The 2018 election gave Arizona Democrats their biggest wins in a decade, with three statewide victories and narrower margins in the state House.

But it also gave Republicans, who will face a tough fight to keep their long-held legislative majority, an opportunity they haven’t had since the 2010 election cycle – the ability to argue that Arizonans need Republicans in office to stave off overreach by newly empowered Democrats.

“Essentially what they’re doing is taking the brand of Democrats as extreme and attaching it to whatever name is helpful,” Democratic campaign consultant Catherine Alonzo said. “Nancy Pelosi has been the brand in the past because you haven’t necessarily had those statewide Democrats in Arizona to point to, but now that we do they’re going to be branded with the same brush.”

Nowhere is that more clear than in the case of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who, in the telling of some legislative Republicans and parent activists, is hell-bent on stripping parental rights, crippling the state’s voucher program and sexualizing schoolchildren instead of focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic.

The top Republican in the state House called Hoffman a “radical” in a speech over the weekend. Another legislative Republican called on Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate her implementation of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

The Senate’s Republican education policy leader warned parents that they would lose their rights if Democrats win the majority of legislative seats in 2020. And the state Republican Party jumped on an op-ed the Portland-raised Hoffman wrote for the Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal, urging lawmakers in her home state to support a legislative effort to create something akin to Arizona’s Clean Elections program in Oregon.

Talking Points

In Hoffman, a 33-year-old school speech therapist whose long-shot campaign was buoyed by the Red for Ed movement, Arizona Republicans found an in-state alternative to Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Her opposition to expanding the state’s voucher program and support for comprehensive sex education immediately placed her at odds with some legislative Republicans.

GOP political consultant Chuck Coughlin said it’s easy for Republicans to use vouchers and sex ed as talking points against Hoffman, and, by extension, their legislative opponents.

“Those are bread-and-butter issues for Republicans to try to stigmatize her on,” Coughlin said. “Whether she takes the bait and engages on that is a separate question. She has the ability to define what she’s for beyond those issues.”

Republican attacks on Hoffman as an elected official picked up in May, after the Arizona Department of Education discovered that eight families in the Window Rock area had improperly been using state voucher funds to pay tuition at a private school just across the New Mexico border.

The 10 students affected qualified for ESA funds, but the program didn’t allow state money to be spent at out-of-state private schools. The department suspended the students’ accounts and sent their families letters demanding that they repay the money spent.

The American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group headed in Arizona by former lawmaker Steve Smith, promptly filmed an emotional video shared widely by Republican lawmakers panning Hoffman’s implementation of the ESA program. The Legislature scurried in the last days of session to pass a narrowly tailored law that will allow the Navajo families affected to continue using their voucher money out-of-state through the end of the 2019-20 school year, though Republicans signaled they plan to expand the program next year.

Similarly-shot videos from the American Federation for Children began appearing like clockwork each month. A June video featured a Sierra Vista boy who was initially rejected from the ESA program because the active-duty military parent who would qualify him for the program is his stepmother, not a biological parent. One in July showed a Gilbert mother complaining about unusually long phone wait times she dealt with while seeking answers about her son’s ESA.

Each video sparked a cavalcade of criticism from conservative lawmakers. One even led Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, to call for an attorney general investigation of Hoffman.

“It appears that Superintendent Hoffman is letting her personal disapproval of the ESA program affect her legal obligation to follow the law,” Finchem said at the time. “It is unconscionable that an elected official charged with administering education programs would slow-walk a program, which primarily serves children with special needs, because it doesn’t fit her left-wing agenda to end parental authority over school choice. Personal politics should never supersede the law, particularly as it relates to disadvantaged and needy families.”

Sex Ed

During the same period, the Department of Education was drawn into an intense fight over sex education — a topic that, like all other curricula, is predominantly managed at the district level.

In her State of Education Address to the House Education Committee in February, Hoffman called for the repeal of the state’s longstanding “no promo homo” law, enacted as part of a 1991 compromise between a Democratic minority desperate to preserve federal funding for sex education and House Republicans who wanted to avoid any acknowledgement of safe methods of homosexual sex.

In late March, two gay rights organizations sued Hoffman and the Department of Education over that law. Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s refusal to defend the state led the Legislature to vote overwhelmingly to repeal it.

That left the state Board of Education to rewrite its own rules to reflect the new state law, a task the board took up in May and June. It dropped language requiring schools to “promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage” in May, but declined to take up a suggestion Hoffman submitted on behalf of state Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network that would require that sex education instruction be “medically and scientifically accurate.”

Hoffman’s support of comprehensive sex education is a sticking point for conservative activists and lawmakers, including Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Both spoke at Gilbert’s American Leadership Academy September 14 about their concerns.

“I don’t feel radical, but I know radical,” Bowers said at the event. “When Kathy Hoffman promotes this, I don’t have any question it’s about radicalizing children.”

He later said he stood by his assessment of Hoffman, but hoped she would prove him wrong. Allen, meanwhile, told attendees they needed to elect Republicans to stand against Democratic plans.

Plan of Attack

Murphy Bannerman, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said Bowers and Allen are prefacing attacks Democrats expect to see in 2020.

“It seems like Allen and Bowers are teaming up to lay the groundwork for Republican 2020 talking points, that parents need to be afraid of what will happen if the Legislature changes,” she said. “They’re trying to rally their base and to get Republicans to turn out and vote down-ticket.”

Candidates want to be able to point to a contrast between “us” and “them,” Coughlin said. So far, Arizonans haven’t been exposed to much of that type of campaigning at the local level because of how thoroughly Republicans have dominated state government during the past decade.

“In the past two cycles, there’s been nobody really to contrast with,” Coughlin said. “It’s been more about ‘look at us, we’re doing great.’”

Most voters don’t know who Hoffman or Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, are, making comparisons to the two of them rather ineffective, GOP political consultant Chris Baker said.

As a consultant for congressional campaigns, Baker has tried to tie his candidates’ Democratic opponents to U.S. House Speaker Pelosi. Name-dropping Pelosi works because Republican and independent voters targeted by those campaigns tend to know who she is and think she’s too far left, but similar mailers in legislative races naming Hoffman or Hobbs instead of a prominent figure like Pelosi wouldn’t have the same effect, Baker said.

“The problem with using Hobbs and Hoffman, is as much as I’m sure they’d probably disagree, most voters don’t know enough about either one of them to be terribly influenced by comparing Democrat candidate A to Katie Hobbs or Kathy Hoffman, simply because most voters don’t know or care about either one of them,” Baker said.

Democrats seeking to win over independents despite negative attacks can actually look to Hoffman as an example of what to do, Alonzo, the Democratic consultant, said.

“What Democrats are going to do is make sure they are telling the consistent authentic story about what they do stand for, and I think it’s good news that in Katie Hobbs and Kathy Hoffman you do have candidates who got elected doing that,” Alonzo said. “They got elected telling the story of their vision, and we know that they’ll continue to do so.”

Senate panel OKs voucher expansion bill

classroom school money chalkboard dollar sign

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. 

Paul Boyer
Paul Boyer

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. 


The Breakdown: Between the lines

docOne Democratic lawmaker wants to spend 2020 tackling a unique form of gerrymandering, and argues that inmates in Arizona prisoners shouldn’t count towards the population of the legislative district that the prison is drawn in.

And some parents are complaining of long waits to ask questions of the Arizona Department of Education when they need answers about the state’s voucher program. Is this a new problem, or just another example of an underfunded state agency?

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes and Stitcher.


Music in this episode included “Creative Minds,” “Funky Element” and “Energy” by Bensound.

Voucher vote creates dilemma for school-choice supporters

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8, 2018, after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

If voters approve the voucher expansion law in November, many believe those changes would be locked in under the Voter Protection Act.

That means modifying the statute in the future would be incredibly difficult, and that is where the problem lies for the school-choice crowd.

And that’s also why the opposing sides in the debate over the expansion of school vouchers in Arizona may have found an unexpected common ground in Proposition 305 – that its passage at the ballot box may not be the best way forward for school-choice advocates and critics alike.

Indeed, the prospect of locking that law in place has been enough to give even the staunchest supporters of Empower Scholarship Accounts pause.

Kim Martinez
Kim Martinez

“If Prop. 305 passes, it could hinder our ability to make crucial improvements to the ESA program,” said Kim Martinez, a spokeswoman for the pro-voucher American Federation for Children.

“It is entirely possible that a ‘no’ vote might give more children the opportunity to use an ESA than a ‘yes’ vote.”

Arizona has had vouchers since 2011, when they were originally earmarked for children with special needs. Lawmakers have step-by-step expanded eligibility to include foster children, reservation residents and students attending D or F schools.

A “yes” on Prop. 305 would keep SB1431, the expansion of ESAs, in place as approved by the Legislature in 2017.

SB1431 sought to expand eligibility to all public school students to use public money to attend private or religious schools, and would increase the cap on enrollment to 30,000 students by the 2022-2023 school year.

Arizona has roughly 1 million public school students, and school choice advocates want to make each one eligible to receive a voucher.

But if the cap of 30,000 students becomes voter-protected, expanding it in the future will be a challenge.

Whether the Voter Protection Act applies to a citizen-initiated referendum on laws has long been the subject of debate. Many say whether the outcome on Prop. 305 is “yes” or “no” makes the law voter-protected and will likely be a question for the courts to hash out.

To amend a voter-protected program, legislators must pass an amendment with a three-fourths vote and whatever change they make must further the intent of the original measure.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (Photo by Katie Campbell/ Arizona Capitol Times)
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (Photo by Katie Campbell/ Arizona Capitol Times)

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said lawmakers rarely pass legislation intending it to be “the end all, be all final product.” And if he and many of his colleagues could go back, they would likely make a few tweaks to SB1431, knowing now that it could soon be set in stone.

Though he voted for the bill in 2017, Mesnard said he’s among Republicans and school-choice advocates who are undecided on how he’ll vote on Prop. 305 because its success at the ballot box might mean voter protection.

“On the one hand, I’d like it to pass because I supported the policy,” he said. “But on the other hand, being unable to navigate moving forward would be very frustrating.”

Despite his dilemma on Prop. 305, Mesnard supports the expansion of school choice.

Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots group responsible for Prop. 305, recognizes that ESA advocates have not actually changed their minds about the broader issue.

Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker joined thousands of public education advocates who rallied at the Capitol on March 28, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Dawn Penich-Thacker (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

“This is just one milestone in what I think everyone has to realize is a long battle,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, said.

Whatever happens with Prop. 305, she said she’s certain Republicans will return as early as next session to launch a new expansion effort.

“If it can’t happen through Prop 305, no big deal,” she said. “They’ll introduce a bill next year