School ‘vouchers for all’ bill is baaack!


I have warned you for months now that the “vouchers for all” bill would be back in this legislative session, and sure enough . . .

Howard Fischer reports, Arizona proposal would expand ‘vouchers’ for private, parochial schools:

State lawmakers are making a new attempt to provide taxpayer-provided dollars to all 1.1 million students in Arizona schools to help their parents pay to instead send them to private and parochial schools.

The proposal by Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would dramatically expand what has been a small program now reserved for students with special needs and those in failing schools. It would create what amounts to a universal “voucher” (aka “vouchers for all”) of state funds that could be used to pay tuition and fees at other (private and parochial) schools.

Now, this is the point where Howie should point out that this is unconstitutional, but nowhere in his report does he even mention this critical fact. Bad Howie!

The Arizona Constitution prohibits state funding to private and parochial schools:

Article 2, Section 12: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”

Article 11, Section 7: “No sectarian instruction shall be imparted in any school or state educational institution that may be established under this Constitution, and no religious or political test or qualification shall ever be required as a condition of admission into any public educational institution of the state, as teacher, student, or pupil;”

Sydney Hay, lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, which pushes such programs nationwide, said it’s not really a voucher, as parents are free to instead use the dollars to purchase services for their children, including specific classes and tutors. But these essentially have to be parents who home-school their children, as the funding is not available to anyone who attends a traditional public or charter school.

And the system would be set up so that if parents have state money left over they can bank that, even setting it aside for a child’s college education.

Lesko pointed out existing law caps these vouchers at 0.5 percent of all students, a figure that comes out to about 5,500 students. But that cap self-destructs in 2020 — about the same time as Lesko’s four-year phase-in of vouchers for all would take effect. Lesko was noncommittal about supporting a new cap at that time.

So the privatization of public education, in violation of the Arizona Constitution, would be a fait accompli by 2020.

Lesko’s legislation is the latest effort to expand what started out as a small program in 2011 to help parents of children with disabilities. It provides the equivalent of 90 percent of what would be state aid to send a similar child to a public school. Since that time, lawmakers have extended the program to any child in a public school rated “D” or “F” by the state Board of Education.

A similar measure faltered last year …

Only for P.R. reasons, because it would not have looked good for the legislature to be giving public dollars to private and parochial schools at the same time that Governor Ducey was selling his bogus Prop. 123 to voters in a special election last May. It was a timing issue. “Just come back in January,” which is exactly what has occurred.

This year could be different. Gov. Doug Ducey has pronounced himself a strong supporter of “school choice,” and is scheduled to appear Thursday at a School Choice Week celebration at the Capitol.

Also, Lesko has added a sweetener of sorts to this year’s version: Schools would be required to test students who are attending with vouchers and report the results to the parents. But Lesko said she does not believe it is necessary for private and parochial schools to report the test results to the public, even though taxpayers are funding the education.

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said none of that makes the idea more acceptable.

“The private schools are a parent’s choice and they’re a legitimate choice,” he said. “But the state has an obligation to fully and adequately fund its primary mission, which is the free public schooling of all the students. [See Constitutional provisions above.] And we’re not doing that right now,” he said, with teachers “leaving in droves” and buildings and buses in disrepair.

Kotterman said the state should not be diverting dollars away from public schools.

Kotterman is making a veiled reference to the School Facilities Board, which provides maintenance support for schools.  The  Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which won an historic ruling in Roosevelt Elem. School Dist. v. Bishop, 179 Ariz. 233, 877 P.2nd 806 (1994) voiding the state’s school financing scheme, is weighing whether to challenge the system as again being so out of balance to be unconstitutional. The lawsuit could occur this year.

Lesko pegged the average voucher at $5,200 for students without special needs. Using that figure, Lesko said that’s still cheaper than the more than $9,529 it costs to educate the average public-school student.

But Kotterman said that figure is misleading because it also includes local and federal funds as well as bonds and overrides.

He said all schools depend to some degree on locally raised revenues. And that means many schools get less than that full state-aid formula.

Put in its most extreme example, he said, the state provides no student aid for Cave Creek schools, since that district raises more than enough from local revenues. But if a student moves from a Cave Creek school to a private or parochial school, the state is now on the hook for voucher money it never was obligated to pay before.

There is the parallel question of whether there would be any long-term savings to the state.

Lesko said her legislation qualifies only those who are “switchers,” meaning they came from a public school. But she acknowledged a family that already intended to send a child to a private school could qualify for a voucher simply by sending the child to a public-school kindergarten for one year.

The bottom line, said Lesko, is school choice.

This is just right-wing code for “privatization of government schools.”

The Republic’s Laurie Roberts writes, Push is on to divert (even more) public money to private schools in Arizona:

The GOP-led Legislature has long schemed for ways to divert money to private schools in the name of parental choice but ran into trouble in 2009 when the state Supreme Court declared Arizona’s voucher program an unconstitutional use of public funds on private or religious schools.

Thus was born the Empowerment Scholarship Account (read: another voucher program). Basically, the state loads tax money onto a debit card and hands it to you, the parent, to spend as you wish provided it’s used to educate your child, either now or post high school.

The program started in 2011 for disabled students. Then it was expanded to the children of the military and to foster children. Then to certain kindergarteners and to children who live in school districts that received a D or F rating from the state.

And now … to any student, if Lesko prevails.

And she will.

What Laurie Roberts leaves out is what happened after the Arizona Supreme Court declared the voucher program unconstitutional, and the Goldwater Institute devised the Empowerment Scholarship Account scheme. I posted about it at the time. Arizona Courts disregard the Constitution, authorize the privatization of public education (excerpt):

Because this sophisticated scheme to fleece Arizona taxpayers is set up for individuals to access an account — a “pass-through” to the private education corporations that financially benefit — the Arizona Court of Appeals accepted the Goldwater Institute’s legal legerdemain that this somehow is not really a direct taxpayer subsidy, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal, No. 12-042 (Ariz. App. Ct., Div. One Oct. 1, 2013) (.pdf).

The appellate court distinguished Cain v. Horne (Cain II), 220 Ariz. 77,  202 P.3d 1178  (2009), in which Arizona’s Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s previous attempt at a voucher program.  Under that law, state funds were issued by check to a parent who had selected a private school, and the parent was required to restrictively endorse the check to the private school.  Interpreting Cain II, the Neihaus appellate court said the voucher program was struck down “because, essentially, the voucher programs transferred state funds directly from the state treasury to private schools…. In the programs disapproved in Cain II, the state was paying money directly to the institutions; although the payment first went to parents, they then went ineluctably to private schools.”  The appellate court found that the holding in Cain II did not render the ESA program unconstitutional because “unlike in Cain II, in which every dollar of the voucher program was earmarked for private schools, none of the ESA funds are preordained for a particular destination.”

See discussion at Arizona Court of Appeals upholds private school scholarship.

Taking advantage of a Friday news dump, the Arizona Supreme Court yesterday declined to review the Court of Appeals decision. The Arizona Supreme Court has effectively endorsed the Goldwater Institute’s legal legerdemain to effectively render two constitutional provisions null and void Sub Silentio.

The Arizona Supreme Court has made a momentous decision to judicially amend the Arizona Constitution to authorize the privatization of public education — the power to amend the Constitution is a power reserved exclusively to the voters — removing this decision from a vote of the people, and without any opinion explaining or justifying its momentous decision. This is a major scandal.

For the GOP-friendly media in Arizona, not so much. The media largely ignored the significance of this decision.

Now that Governor Ducey’s Arizona Supreme Court court packing scheme has been completed, it’s possible that a similar decision could result with Lesko’s new bill.

The question is whether a “vouchers for all” bill is a bridge too far for the Arizona Supreme Court, as I have outlined it above. Is the court willing to go so far as to judicially amend the Arizona Constitution without a public vote? Will the court follow its Cain v. Horne (Cain II), 220 Ariz. 77, 202 P.3d 1178 (2009) decision, or will it follow the Court of Appeals decision it endorsed without an opinion in Niehaus v. Huppenthal, No. 12-042 (Ariz. App. Ct., Div. One Oct. 1, 2013)?

Laurie Roberts adds:

While I’m asking questions, does anybody really believe that poor kids will be able to use ESAs to attend private schools?

The average ESA for a child without special needs is $4,000 to $5,000 or 90 percent of what the state pays to send a similar child to a public school. (Assuming the state pays anything. Many well-to-do districts get no state aid but the state still would have to supply ESAs for kids in those districts.)

Supporters will tell you that ESA expansion is all about helping the poor escape their lousy schools. But an Arizona Republic investigation last year found that most children attending private schools with taxpayer-supplied ESAs are leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts.

Our leaders haven’t yet explained how a poor kid with an ESA worth $5,000 will be able to attend private schools that can cost up to twice that or more, when tuition and transportation are taken into account.

That’s because ESAs really aren’t about helping the poor.

And our Legislature really isn’t about improving the schools that are attended by 1.1 million Arizona children.

You know, the public ones?

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AZ BlueMeanie
The Blue Meanie is an Arizona citizen who wishes, for professional reasons, to remain anonymous when blogging about politics. Armed with a deep knowledge of the law, politics and public policy, as well as pen filled with all the colors stolen from Pepperland, the Blue Meanie’s mission is to pursue and prosecute the hypocrites, liars, and fools of politics and the media – which, in practical terms, is nearly all of them. Don’t even try to unmask him or he’ll seal you in a music-proof bubble and rendition you to Pepperland for a good face-stomping. Read blog posts by the infamous and prolific AZ Blue Meanie here.


  1. Who are the important state senators to call in opposition to this bill, and what is the specific bill number?

  2. Is there a bill number for this proposal yet? Thank you for this good coverage. Some argue about the theory of doing better in private schools, but the fact-based evidence does NOT play out. Pay attention. You can look at the debacle in Michigan, for example.

  3. I saw Lesko on one of the local political talk shows last week.

    She seems well intentioned but not all that bright, so she’s the perfect delivery mechanism for ALEC’s cookie cutter screw-the-taxpayer laws.

    I have a theory that the reason the GOP has so many politicians with limited intelligence is because all the smart Republicans get real jobs or start real businesses.

    Then they con or bribe the Lesko’s of the world to write, or more accurately, copy/paste, laws that benefit and enrich themselves at the taxpayer’s expense.

    The GOTeaP is a scam.

  4. This is the most critical reform of them all precisely because it is so difficult to run a school with traditional education culture with this amount of money.

    The break through for poor children will allow us to run a school for half as much money at twice the teacher salaries.

    • Why do private schools charge so much money per student to attend? If they are so good, why doesn’t the state fund at the same rate?

    • “The break through for poor children will allow us to run a school for half as much money at twice the teacher salaries.”

      Even if you assumed that buildings, administration, support staff (counselors, secretaries, janitors), busing, textbooks, etc., all could potentially be supplied at a cost of zero to the district, your argument requires that teacher salaries account for less than 25% of a typical district’s budget.

      The idea that a full 75% of every district’s budget is waste, fraud, and abuse, is laughable on the face.

      • Not too long ago, a 40 year old man who had lost his sight at the age of 5 had has vision completely restored. Unfortunately, he still couldn’t see. Turns out that 85% of what we see doesn’t come to us from outside our brains, it comes from inside our brains and he lacked 40 years of vision development.

        Point? We are all prisoners of our cultural upbringing, we can see outside our cultural reality maps only with great difficulty. And, we are built to ridicule and punish those who move outside that map. 85% of what we see and believe doesn’t come from our perceptions, it comes from inside our brains.

        Point? There is a deeper reality to be obtained in education. One in which the average student grows more than twice as fast and our slowest students grow up to ten times as fast. That deeper reality is prisoner to the existing education culture. That deeper reality is very close to breaking out and there are many education leaders who see pieces of it. I believe that I can see almost all of it. But, it is very complex.

        What are you not seeing with your simplistic calculations?

        • I will ask again. Why do private schools charge so much more than a public school gets for a student? It must have some correlation right Professor Huppenthal?

          • According to data from the Nation Center for Education Statistics, the average price of a year of private elementary school is $7,770, and the average annual cost of private high school is $13,030.

            The average Catholic school costs about $3,700 a year for elementary and $8,200 for high school, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

            Both of these numbers are below public schools.

            Also, the most exhaustive study comparing public and private schools showed public schools having higher academic gains than private schools once you properly separate home effects and school effects.

  5. In Nevada the same bunch tried the same money laundered approach, but the State Supreme Court declared the funding method illegal, since it came from the same funds as real public schools. Along with a clear question, , Lesko should also propose a separate tax to fund money laundered accounts. See if taxpayers would pay a new tax to pay for this scheme. So far in the Nevada, the legislature changed majorities, so it’s likely no new funds will be made for the money laundering scheme. I love the way they always talk about the benefits to poor children. They don’t care one iota about poor children.

  6. Money laundering, pure and simple. A horrible, horrible scheme. No one should be surprised since Lesko is bought and paid for by ALEC. If she had the guts, put it in the ballot straight out, “Should taxpayer money be used to pay for private, religious schools, period”. Seems its already illegal, except the Supreme Court bought the money laundering illogic.

  7. I’d love to get a voucher to take my tax dollars that the government spends on private prisons and detention centers, and give that to public schools.

    But that right there is the exact problem with the argument that vouchers are good because it’s ‘the taxpayers’ money to spend as they want it’. It’s not. It’s money to be spent in pursuit of the public good, not to be funneled to support private interests. And yes, I’ll concede the Republican argument about bureaucratic inefficiency and regulatory capture – those are certainly problems. But a population of individuals who have subpar education because their parents are in prison, their teachers have little grasp of the material themselves, they have no computers & textbooks, and their buildings are falling apart. Well, that’s a far worse problem, and it’s going to get worse until we as a society collectively decide that it’s better to spend the money now, then wait until we have to spend triple that money in law enforcement and incarceration later.

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