Arizona passes nation’s largest voucher program

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In 2018, Arizona voters made it clear what they thought of a plan to use public money to fund private education: They voted against it, or as the columnist described it. Arizona Republic Laurie Roberts: “Actually, they didn’t just reject it. They stoned the thing, then they threw it in the street and crushed it. Then they backed up and ran over it again.

Despite the nearly 2-to-1 rejection, the Republican-dominated Arizona Legislature just approved the nation’s largest school voucher program, which makes every Arizona student eligible for funds provided by the taxpayers to attend private and religious schools as well as online education, homeschooling, tutors, etc.

It’s the only approved universal voucher program in any state yet — and it says a lot about what critics say is hostility toward state-run and funded school districts, which educate still the majority of Arizona kids.

Governor Doug Ducey (R) said he would sign the legislation, which as the right-wing Heritage Foundation put it, means Arizona was able to ‘reclaim its statehood with the school voucher program “the widest” in the nation. Ducey didn’t hesitate to claim the award, tweeting, “Biggest school pick win in US history.”

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One thing the legislation lacks is any form of accountability that would allow the public to know what the schools that receive the voucher money are actually doing. Yes, students entering the voucher program should take a standardized national test each year – but the state won’t see the scores, and unless a particular school has at least 50 voucher students enrolled, the parents can’t even see the overall scores. That doesn’t worry House Majority Leader Ben Toma, the bill’s main instigator, who said the responsibility would lie with parents who “know what’s best for their children”.

State Sen. Christine Marsh (D) tried to add accountability measures to the legislation last week, but failed. According to 12 News, she wanted amendments that would have required private schools to enroll students with vouchers to do things like check employee fingerprints and implement academic standards and testing. He quotes her in these terms: “We have no financial transparency and we have no academic transparency. I would like to know how many families who earn maybe $1 million a year receive vouchers compared to the number of families who earn maybe 30 or 40,000 a year who receive vouchers.

That sentiment, however, is outside the concerns of proponents of school choice — alternatives to district-run public schools — who want options not just for low-income families, but for all families.

Further, Arizona Republicans have not given much thought to accountability issues in the “choice” programs. State charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately run — are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want. The state has no cap on the number of charters and allows charter owners to opt out of procurement requirements and accounting guidelines required of other state agencies. The state auditor general is not authorized to audit charters – and it is no surprise that there have been many scandals involving financial fraud in the sector. (You can find out more here.)

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About 28 percent of state-funded schools in Arizona are charters, and they enroll about 20 percent of the state’s students. The nonprofit Center for Education Reform announced in May that Arizona had “made a comeback to overtake Florida as the first winner of the charter school promotion.” More good news for the Arizona GOP.

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Under the new voucher scheme, the 1.1 million Arizona students who can enroll in public school can get vouchers – technically known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. – in the form of a debit card worth about $7,000 and use it for educational purposes. The current voucher plan in Arizona helps less than 12,000 students.

Voucher legislation almost didn’t pass because a few Republican lawmakers were concerned about the level of funding for public school districts — a chronic problem in Arizona, whose per-student funding is at or near the lowest among all states. . Arizona’s constitution has a school spending limit approved by voters in 1980 and, according to the nonprofit Arizona Center for Economic Progress, “is outdated and based on school needs in 1980.”

The Legislature reluctantly lifted the cap for the school year that just ended after it became clear that drastic cuts would have to be made to schools due to the costs incurred during the pandemic and a severe shortage. of teachers.

To ensure the passage of the voucher plan – which the law says will cost the state’s general fund up to $33.4 million in 2023, the first year, and $125.4 million from here 2025 – lawmakers have agreed to increase public school spending, but, again, the spending cap will need to be lifted. In the budget Ducey signed into law this week, public school districts will get a boost of more than $1 billion — though the legislature will have to raise the school spending cap again — a far cry from what that Arizona school districts say they need to meet student needs.

Opponents of the voucher program have a way to postpone it: they have the chance to collect enough signatures over the next three months to put it on the ballot for a vote in 2024. Then the program would not go into effect. into force in 2023 as planned.

It remains to be seen exactly how many students will choose to avail themselves of the money. According to the Private School Review website, Arizona has 242 religion-affiliated private schools — the majority Christian and Catholic — serving nearly 48,500 students. It says the average tuition is $7,309, which compares to an average tuition of $10,255 for non-religious private schools in Arizona.

Democrats have said they are worried about a “predatory market” of private schools that will rush to open when the voucher program begins. Republicans weren’t concerned.

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