State bill would expand Arizona school voucher program

Feb 11, 2021, 4:35 AM

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)...

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Students from low-income families would be eligible for Arizona’s school voucher program under a bill making its way through the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 1452 would make students receiving free or reduced lunch and those getting Title I services eligible for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. It provides state funds for parents who choose to send their children to private schools or other educational costs.

“It’s a fully functioning and proven education opportunity that has already helped thousands of Arizona’s disadvantaged students,” Sen. Paul Boyer said during a recent committee hearing over his bill as he made the case for the ESA program.

He argued expanding the program would help bridge the gap between minority students living in high-poverty areas and their white peers.

Boyer added it would also help low-income parents “solve the biggest problems” they face as they try to educate their students during the pandemic.

“Being a teacher myself, I see this every day,” he said. “Our students are struggling. Minority students are struggling even harder, from the digital divide to not having in-person teachers.”

The ESA program allows parents to use state funds to cover private school tuition, homeschooling, tutoring and other expenses.

Currently, only a narrow group of students are eligible. Once approved for the program, 90% of the state funds that would have gone to a student’s school district or charter school would instead go to a debit card that can be used for approved education-related expenses.

Devin Del Palacio, Tolleson Union High School District governing board president, said he’s against SB 1452 “because it does more harm than it does good.” He’s worried that it would take state funds away from public schools.

“With a program like this, you’re taking away resources and you’re taking away the ability for us to meet the demands of these challenging times,” he said. “So this is extremely harmful.”

Del Palacio added that during the pandemic, many public schools “have really stepped up” to provide technology, food and mental health services to students. He believes it would be difficult for schools to continue to do that if more state funds are diverted to the ESA program.

“You have to honor the choice of our families that are choosing public education,” he added. “And you have to honor the will of the voters who already voted down the expansion of these empowerment scholarships.”

In 2018, Arizonans voted down a ballot measure that would’ve allowed all 1.1 million K-12 students in the state to use the ESA program.

The Senate Education Committee approved SB 1452 with a 5-3 party-line vote earlier this month. It’s now awaiting a vote in the full Senate.

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State bill would expand Arizona school voucher program