Supporters of Arizona’s school vouchers program march at State Capitol

Mar 2, 2023, 4:25 AM | Updated: 12:07 pm

PHOENIX — Several hundred supporters of Arizona’s school vouchers program marched near the state Capitol on Wednesday, saying the program gives parents more education options for their kids.

Parents, students, and educators were among those who marched in support of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program and chanted phrases like “power to parents,” ESAs are here to stay” and “my child, my choice.”

The program allows taxpayer dollars to be used for private school tuition and other educational expenses. Last summer, then-Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill to make all Arizona K-12 students eligible for the program.

Opponents worry the program siphons funds away from public schools and has very little oversight.

Natyshca Pickett of Phoenix was among the parents who marched in support of the ESA program. Her 7-year-old son first got approved for it in preschool.

“He was diagnosed at birth with conductive hearing loss, and so we wanted to put him in a school that we thought would be best for his needs,” Pickett told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

Pickett used the ESA funds to cover tuition at a private preschool, rather than put him in a school for deaf children like the school district she was trying to enroll him in initially suggested.

Now he is enrolled in a microschool that is tuition free, but he still uses ESA funds to cover speech therapy and other specialists.

About 48,500 students are part of the program, according to the latest data by the Arizona Department of Education, which administers the program. That’s compared to roughly 12,100 before the universal expansion took place.

Previously released data showed most students who were applying late last year under the universal expansion did not have a history of attending an Arizona public school.

“I don’t think there was any surprise there,” Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said. “We had anticipated that this would be primarily used by families who were already in private schools.”

Her group on Wednesday, alongside the Arizona Alliance of Black School Educators, wrote in a letter to Gov. Katie Hobbs and Republican legislative leaders that “ESA vouchers negatively impact student achievement, harm public education, and exacerbate educational inequities.”

“Our organizations share a commitment to improving the quality of education for all students; as such, we recommend that the legislature roll back the universal ESA voucher program, require academic accountability and transparency, and prioritize educational equity for low-income families,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, supporters who defend the ESA program say parents should have a choice of where they send their kids to school.

“It could be at home, it could be a microschool, it could a private school, it could be a public school – wherever they decide, they should have the right to do that,” Janelle Wood, founder and CEO of the Black Mothers Forum, which organized Wednesday’s march, said.

She also pushed back against the argument that the ESA program is subsidizing the education of many wealthy families who were able to afford private school tuition prior to the universal expansion being implemented.

“So what? Let those parents do what they need to do,” Wood said. “At least it opens it up for all parents to have that opportunity.”

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Supporters of Arizona’s school vouchers program march at State Capitol