PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers pushed through a major expansion Thursday of the state’s private school voucher program that was quickly signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
Voucher programs have been growing in popularity in recent years amid a belief by their backers that parents should have more choice about where they send their children to school. Under the programs, parents receive money from the state that they can spend on tuition at private, religious and charter schools.
The proposal expands what began in 2011 as a small program to eventually make all 1.1 million Arizona children eligible to receive vouchers. Opponents, primarily Democrats, believe the law will gut public education. Here are some facts about the system:
WHAT ARE VOUCHERS?
Public schools receive a set amount of money per student from the state, typically about $5,000 per pupil in Arizona. Under the voucher program, the state will give that money to parents to spend on private school tuition, home schooling or tutoring costs, textbooks, testing and other education needs.
WHAT IS ARIZONA’S LAW?
Arizona’s program, known as the Empowerment Scholarship Account, began in 2011 and only applied to disabled students, but other groups, including those in failing schools, living on Indian reservations and foster children, were added over time. It now covers nearly a third of all students. The new law allows every student in the state over the next four years to get vouchers.
WHAT DO OTHER STATES DO?
Twenty-seven states have some sort of similar program allowing parents to pay for public schools with direct or indirect state funds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most are limited to special needs students or limited groups. Only Arizona and Nevada make them available to everyone, but Nevada’s funding scheme has been struck down by its state Supreme Court.
WILL ARIZONA OPPOENTS SUE?
Opponents will have an uphill battle if they bring a legal challenge. Arizona’s program was almost immediately challenged when it passed in 2011, but opponents lost. A trial court found it passed Constitutional muster because parents, not the state, control where the money is spend. The Arizona Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in 2014.
Democratic opponents point out that GOP Senate President Steve Yarbrough profits from school choice through a school tax credit program he runs and a major House backer, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, runs a chain of private charter schools.
WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS ON BOTH SIDES?
Proponents argue that giving parents more choices allows them to make the best decisions for their children. Parents who want to send their children to private schools are paying taxes and they deserve to be able to use that money as they wish.
Opponents say vouchers siphon money away from public education at a time when Arizona’s current funding is already among the lowest in the nation. They also believe the program disproportionately benefits wealthy families and not those in poor school districts because most parents can’t afford private school tuition that is often at least twice what the state provides.
WHAT IS NEXT?
As part of a deal worked out between proponents and a key Republican senator, the law passed Thursday caps the program at about 30,000 students after 2022.
That is only a small percentage of the more than 1.1 million students in Arizona, but opponents believe lawmakers will eliminate the cap in future legislative sessions.
They are pointing to the words of the CEO of the Goldwater Institute, which designed the program, to make their point:
In a blast email shortly after it passed the Arizona House on Thursday, Darcy Olsen wrote: “There is a cap at 5,000 new kids per year; we will get it lifted.”