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Save Our Schools Arizona
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Group files initiative to block Arizona school voucher expansions

(Facebook Photo/Save Our Schools Arizona)

PHOENIX (AP) — A grassroots group that spearheaded a successful effort to get voters to repeal a massive expansion of Arizona’s school voucher program in 2018 filed a new initiative Wednesday designed to rein in the state’s existing program.

Save Our Schools Arizona filed the initiative with the Arizona secretary of state that would cap growth and put in place several other limits. The group needs to collect signatures from nearly 238,000 registered voters by July 2 to get the measure on the November ballot.

The move comes as Republicans who control the Legislature move to slightly increase the reach of the existing voucher program, and as a key GOP advocate is proposing an overhaul to the way the program is run.

GOP Sen. Sylvia Allen amended her existing proposal allowing students on Indian reservations to attend nearby schools in adjoining states. The amendment removes some oversight from the Department of Education, now run by a Democrat, and set up a dedicated call center for parents in the program. She also would change how administration of the program is funded. Another amendment by GOP Sen. Kate Brophy McGee sets up dedicated funding for administration and bars parents from moving voucher money to college savings accounts.

The measure passed the Senate on a 16-14 vote with all Republicans except Sen. Heather Carter in support and all Democrats opposed. It now goes to the House.

Arizona’s school vouchers, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, allow parents to use state funds to send their children to private schools or pay for other education costs. The program only applied to students with disabilities when it began in 2011 but has been greatly expanded over the years to cover many others. It currently is capped at about 30,000 students, although only about 8,200 students are now enrolled. The current cost is about $110 million a year.

Parents get 90% of the state funds that normally go to their local public school to use for private school tuition and other education costs. disabled students can receive up to $40,000 for specialized therapy.

The 2017 law repealed by voters in 2018 would have allowed all 1.1 million Arizona schoolchildren to use private school vouchers. The repeal didn’t block future expansions.

The new initiative would limit the program to 1% of the state’s school population per year, or about 11,000 students, give existing students priority and put disabled students first in line for new vouchers. It would also boost accountability and bar parents from holding onto the cash they receive past the school year.

That’s an important change, since a review of data by the Arizona Capitol Times last month revealed that nine parents had amassed more than $100,000 in their accounts. Current law allows that, and lets parents use it for college or other education costs even after a child graduates from high school.

Allen, who is pushing the effort this year, said the effort by the grassroots group was misplaced.

“I think (Save Our Schools) is living in the last 100 years of how education has been provided and funded,” Allen said. “And they need to realize that education is changing all across the country, and it’s being driven by parents and how they want to educate their kids.”

She criticized the group, made up mainly of public school teachers, parents and retirees, for focusing on a tiny group of students, 70 percent of whom have special needs.

“I think it’s a waste of their time, and they need to get back to their schools, focusing on the children they’re teaching and the schools that they’re teaching at and their neighborhoods and their parents and leave other parents to take care of their children,” Allen said.

Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said the group’s several thousand active volunteers became frustrated after lawmakers kept expanding the program despite the overwhelming 2018 voter repeal of the universal expansion. They came to group leaders and said they wanted to take the issue to the ballot. If approved, any initiative would be protected from changes by the Legislature.

“Our network kept coming to the Legislature in 2019 and again this year and it was groundhog day,” she said. “You go to these hearings, its clear they already have their minds made up, they are not interested in what their own constituents have to say. ”

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