Arizona Republic, Kids already in private schools could receive tuition vouchers under GOP plan
By Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Rob O’Dell, 4/5/18
The Arizona Legislature is debating further loosening a key requirement to participate in the state’s school voucher-style program.
Legislation, which narrowly passed the state Senate, would eliminate, for some students, the requirement that they first attend public school before receiving an Empowerment Scholarship Account.
The legislation would eliminate the public-school attendance requirement for students who use certain school-tuition-organization scholarships.
The ESA program gives parents public money to use for private- and religious-school tuition, educational therapies and other services. Money that would have otherwise gone to their local school districts is instead loaded to debit cards that are given to parents.
Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers last year expanded eligibility for ESAs to all 1.1 million public school students, ignited a grass-roots movement against the controversial program. Critics say the program lacks adequate financial and testing accountability — which The Arizona Republic has extensively detailed — while subsidizing some families that can already afford to send their children to private school.
A group of parents and public-school advocates gathered enough signatures to force a public referendum on the expansion in November,as Proposition 305. Until then, the expansion legislation is on hold.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are advancing Senate Bill 1467, which expands the pool of students who could tap the ESA program, at a cost of about $2 million by 2021.
After passing the Senate, the bill could soon be heard on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Much of the debate of the bill has focused on school tuition organization scholarships, not ESAs.
School Tuition Organization (STO) donors — including individuals and corporations — get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for giving to the non-profit organizations. The STOs then give scholarships to private schools students, while keeping up to 10 percent of the money to pay the STO’s salaries and other administrative costs.
Under the current program, students must attend public school for 90 days, either in the current or previous school year, to switch from certain types of scholarships to ESA funding.
The bill, sponsored by Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, would allow special-needs students and foster children who receive private tuition scholarships to switch to an ESA without first attending a public school.
The bill also allows low-income students who receive corporate scholarships to switch to ESAs without public school attendance if they meet another requirement of the program — such as being disabled or attending a failing school.
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‘Why wait 90 days?’
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which provides non-partisan assessments of bills, estimates SB 1467 could increase taxpayer costs by as much as $2 million by 2021 — although it says the estimate is highly speculative.
The JLBC attributes the increased costs to students with severe disabilities being funded at a much higher level for ESAs than for school-tuition-organization scholarships, making it likelier that such students will switch to ESAs if possible.
In its fiscal note, JLBC notes students with disabilities — excluding those with mild disabilities — receive an average ESA award of $24,900 a year. STO scholarships for such students average $9,000.
Currently, many disabled students in private school could not switch to an ESA because they did not attend public school for 90 days during the previous year.
Ducey, who has touted the state’s expanded ESA legislation to like-minded Republicans nationwide, declined through a spokesman to discuss his stance on SB 1467. Ducey typically does not talk about legislation before it reaches his desk.
Yarbrough called the legislation “a technical bill” that helps needy and special needs students get larger STO scholarships.
“At the end of the day this is an inside-baseball bill,” Yarbrough told the House Ways and Means Committee.
He insisted the bill was not about expanding the STO scholarships and the ESA voucher-style programs.
Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, said he supports the ESA expansion.
“I didn’t see where this 90-day pause did anything at all,” he said. “It’s just a restriction on when you could apply for the ESAs. It was kind of like a ‘Why bother?’ They’re going to get it no matter what, why wait 90 days?”
‘Slap in the face’
Teachers turned out in red to oppose the bill at the Legislature, with some giving emotional testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee on why they opposed the bill. Records show 486 have signed up in opposition to SB 1467, four signed up in favor and two were neutral.
The legislation could advance following the release of a tape in which a key ESA supporter said the program should come with as little student accountability as possible and that private schools could use the public money to expand.
Opponents say the bill reflects the same strategy Republicans in the Legislature have used for years in expanding school-choice programs.
“This is the game plan … : You start small, you start with a compassionate subgroup and then you expand, expand, expand,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, which put Prop. 305 on the ballot.
She called the bill a “slap in the face to everyone who thinks Arizona’s public schools need more, not less, funding.”
‘Significant increased costs’
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said the public should care about the details of the bill because it expands STO scholarships and the ESA program. He voted against it in the 16-14 Senate vote.
Farley said the legislation contradicts Republican talking points about ESAs: that they save the state money because students receive less money than public schools would spend to educate them.
“It totally undercuts the entire messaging,” Farley said. “If they never intend to go to the public school in the first place it’s not saving the state money, it’s just subsidizing wealthy people who are already intending to go to a private school.”
Rep. Michelle Udall, a moderate Republican from Mesa, said she won’t support the bill.
“There are significant increased costs to the state,” she said. “At a time when we are struggling to fund our public schools, I think we need to focus our efforts and taxpayer money on funding the constitutionally required free and appropriate public education our students deserve.”
Republican Sen. Bob Worsley of Mesa, who helped negotiate last year’s 2017 expansion legislation, said he voted in favor of SB 1467 because, in his view, it did not greatly expand the number of kids receiving ESAs or dramatically affect the state budget.
Worsley said his main concern about the ESA program was that it capped the number of scholarships at 30,000 as was laid out in the bill that passed the Legislature last year. Although all 1.1 million Arizona schoolchildren would be eligible under the bill he wrote, the number of students would be capped at 30,000.
“That was my way to control the amount of budget impact that ESAs have on the general fund,” Worsley said. “So that’s what my bill did that’s going to the ballot.”
About 4,650 students are using ESAs this school year with awards that top $61.5 million, according to the Arizona Department of Education.
“As long as they honor the 30,000 (cap) … no matter how they get kids into there I really didn’t care as much as honoring the cap to protect the general fund,” Worsley said.
Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Rob O’Dell have covered Arizona’s school voucher debate for two years. Their coverage was recently recognized with an honorable mention for the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
April 5, 2018