Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs controversial school voucher expansion bill

Jul 7, 2022, 2:12 PM | Updated: 2:17 pm
(Pixabay Photo)...
(Pixabay Photo)
(Pixabay Photo)

PHOENIX – Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey wrapped up his final legislative business on Thursday by signing a controversial expansion of the state’s school voucher program.

“With this legislation, Arizona cements itself as the top state for school choice and as the first state in the nation to offer all families the option to choose the school setting that works best for them,” Ducey said in a press release.

“Every family in Arizona should have access to a high-quality education with dedicated teachers. This is truly a win for all K-12 students.”

House Bill 2853, which the Legislature passed on party lines last month before adjourning, makes all Arizona K-12 students eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

Under the law, any Arizona families who don’t want to send their kids to public schools can use ESA funds for a variety of education expenses, including private school tuition and homeschooling. The accounts will provide more than $6,500 per student annually, with the money taken from the public school system’s funding pool.

Previously, the state’s ESA program was limited to children with special needs, students at low-performing schools, military families and residents of Native American reservations.

“This is a monumental moment for all of Arizona’s students,” Ducey said. “Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools. Today, we’re unlocking a whole new world of opportunity for them and their parents.”

Opponents, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, argue the expanded program lacks oversight and will divert much-needed funding from public schools. They also say it will primarily benefit families wealthy enough to afford private school costs above what the ESAs cover.

Republicans passed the expansion four years after Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar attempt, in a 2018 initiative known as Proposition 305, by a 65%-35% margin.

At least one effort, called Stop Voucher Expansion, is already underway to put the issue on the ballot again in 2024.

In addition to all 1.1 million current public district and charter school students, about 60,000 current private students and about 38,000 being homeschooled are newly eligible for ESAs.

About 255,000 public school students qualified for the accounts prior to the expansion, although fewer than 12,000 used them.

The new law also appropriates $2.2 million to hire 26 full-time employees to handle the increased workload for ESA program administration.

Beth Lewis, executive director of advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona, says the families that really need the help won’t be the ones who benefit from the expansion.

“Most of these vouchers are being used as a government subsidy for those who are already planning to send their kids to these elite private schools,” she told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show last week, after lawmakers passed the bill. “There’s a voucher gap. It’s not designed for working class families … because most of the quality private schools cost $15,000-$20,000 a year.

“There are private schools that can be covered by the cost of the voucher, but you’ve got all of these fly-by-night operations that pop up in strip malls to take vouchers.”

Lewis also said that because private school students who use ESAs aren’t subject to standardized testing, there’s no way of knowing if they are benefiting from the program.

“There are studies from all around the country that show that voucher kids do worse,” she said. “We don’t have those studies in Arizona because they don’t test the kids.”

Ducey, a proponent of school choice policies throughout his two terms in office, saved the ESA bill as the last signing of his tenure. He signed 387 bills during the 55th Arizona Legislature.

On Wednesday, he put his name on 47 bills and vetoed three.

Among those signed were a pair of measures pushed by Republicans infuriated with COVID-19 restrictions, including one that allows an employee fired for refusing to take a coronavirus vaccine to get unemployment insurance. If the employer is required to ensure their workers are vaccinated, they will not be charged higher premiums.

Ducey also approved an election measure opposed by civil rights and media groups that makes it a misdemeanor to videotape police officers within 8 feet or closer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs controversial school voucher expansion bill