The ‘Voucher Vultures’ are using Navajo children as pawns in their game

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I warned you the other day about the approach of sine die and zombie bills being revived from the dead without public input or debate.

March 29 was the last day for House consideration of Senate bills, and Senate consideration of House bills. April 19 was the last day for conference committees to consider bills.

But when you are anti-democratic authoritarian Republicans, the rules are whatever you say the rules are, and the public be damned. Especially when it comes to taxpayer-funded school vouchers (ESA).

This bill is not even a zombie bill, but a new bill introduced well past the legislative deadlines. The Voucher Vultures are back.

The Arizona Capitol Times reports, House introduces bill to allow vouchers for out-of-state schools:

The House Rules Committee on Monday granted permission for the late introduction of legislation to allow parents to use Empowerment Scholarship Accounts out of state.

Over the weekend, House Majority Leader Warren Petersen and Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray promised to introduce legislation in response to the Arizona Department of Education rescinding participation in the ESA program from families on the Navajo Nation because funds from the accounts were used at a private school in New Mexico.

Under state law, ESA funds cannot be spent on out-of-state tuition.

“We will be introducing legislation as soon as possible to allow these kids to continue to utilize their ESAs,” the pair said in a press release. “While details are still being finalized, we have bipartisan support in both the House and Senate to correct this outrage.”

Outrage? Such outrage is reserved for taxpayer-funded vouchers (ESA) to private schools and home schooling, not our woefully underfunded public school system that the Arizona Constitution requires our legislature to fully support. Republicans have for years disregarded this constitutional mandate.

The Arizona Republic adds some critical details, Arizona voucher bill could pay private schools 2 miles into other states:

The plan to amend the state’s voucher-like Empowerment Scholarship Account program is being pushed by Republicans after the school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children amplified concerns that some students in Window Rock might be kicked out of the program for using public money to pay private school tuition in New Mexico.

The conservative think tank Goldwater Institute sent a letter to the Department of Education contending that the children who attended the New Mexico private school, called Hilltop Christian Academy, should be allowed to continue attending the New Mexico school.

The letter, written by Timothy Sandefur, the vice president of the center for constitutional litigation at Goldwater, states that although schools in the ESA program must be in Arizona, “teaching services” paid for through the program need only be accredited by a “state, regional or national” organization.

It urges the state to label the New Mexico private school as “teaching services” rather than tuition so the children can continue to use Arizona funds at the school. The letter, which was sent two weeks ago on May 6, said Goldwater will appeal any denial.

This sounds like a “special law” to benefit a single entity, which is unconstitutional. The Arizona Constitution directs that “[n]o local or special law shall be enacted in any of the following situations: (9) assessment and collection of taxes, (13) granting to any corporation, association, or individual, any special or exclusive privileges, immunities or franchises, and (18) relinquishing any indebtedness, liability, or obligation to this state.” Ariz. Const.art. IV, § 19. This prohibition is designed “to prevent the legislature from providing benefits or favors to certain groups or localities.”  State Compensation Fund v. Symington, 174 Ariz. 188, 192, 848 P.2d 273, 277 (1993). See, A.G. Opinion Number I13-004 (R13-008):

A statute is an unconstitutional special law if it fails to meet any of three independent requirements: (1) the classification of beneficiaries in the statute must have a rational relationship to a legitimate legislative objective; (2) the classification must encompass all members of the relevant class; and (3) the class must be elastic, allowing members to come and go as circumstances warrant. Republic Inv. Fund I v. Town of Surprise, 166 Ariz. 143, 149, 800 P.2d 1251, 1257 (1990) (deannexation statute was invalid as special law for lack of generality and elasticity where the legislature restricted statute to a closed class of twelve cities).

In this case, the sole beneficiary is the New Mexico private school, Hilltop Christian Academy, which was the recipient of the unlawfully distributed ESA funds from Arizona. Oddly enough, “special laws” and “gift clause” cases are the type of lawsuit that the “Kochtopus” Death Star, the Goldwater Institute, specializes in bringing, except when it applies to their own advocacy for private school vouchers. Shockers!

The Arizona Department of Education sent letters to the families of those students, who live on the Navajo Reservation, rescinding their participation in the ESA program after learning money was spent out of state during a routine internal audit.

The reservation encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Richie Taylor, spokesman for State Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, said Hoffman supports forgiving the money — which is in the thousands of dollars per family — already spent at the New Mexico private school, Hilltop Christian Academy.

But, Taylor said, Republican leaders are intent on changing the law to permanently allow out-of-state use of the vouchers.

“They are wanting to change the law before the session ends,” Taylor said. “We are trying to fix this administratively so families don’t have to pay the money back. As the law stands now, money is not allowed out of state.”

The bill would allow students on Indian reservations to use the vouchers to attend private schools within 2 miles of the Arizona border.

House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, “claimed fewer than 100 students would be affected by the legislation. It is unclear how he arrived at that figure.”

This is how those sneaky bastards at the “Kochtopus” Goldwater Institute and American Federation For Children operate. They find a small, sympathetic group of children around whom to argue for a change in the law, in this case eliminating the prohibition that ESA funds cannot be spent on out-of-state tuition, and the next thing you know they will be back in the next legislative session arguing that all students should be allowed to spend ESA funds on out-of-state tuition without any distance limitations. This bill is the camel under the nose of the tent for future expansion. Do not trust these sneaky bastards.

Arizona Republican lawmakers used similar arguments when they passed the first-in-the-nation ESA program in 2011, granting vouchers to children with special needs. GOP lawmakers have expanded the program in nearly every legislative session since the program was approved, including 2017’s failed attempt at universal vouchers.

It is unclear how many students on the Navajo Reservation are being asked to repay the money. Taylor said the department was trying to determine the number, the amount of money and when the approvals were made.

He said the students were given approval sometime in the past two years to attend the school, but wasn’t sure exactly when. However, he said the approvals were given prior to Hoffman taking office.

Hilltop Christian School was not among the private schools receiving voucher money in 2017, when The Arizona Republic reported on the program’s lack of transparency on who was receiving ESA money.

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Aaron Latham, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, said the proposed legislation was announced before the three Democratic lawmakers who represent the area knew about the issue.

“Our District 7 members were the last to know,” Latham said Monday, as lawmakers were being briefed on the issue. “We’re not happy about it.”

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, said she was upset to have heard about the issue seemingly after everyone else in the Legislature already knew. She said she wants the families to not be forced to pay back the money because “they are not to blame.”

“Going forward from here we cannot use taxpayer money to pay for private schools in other states,” Peshlakai said, adding she wants more money for public schools. “This ESA thing is so politicized.”

It appears the students may have been encouraged by American Federation for Children to apply to attend that school. This weekend the school’s website said this: “Arizona families can now send their children to Hilltop Christian School at little to no cost to your family! The American Federation for Children is a state-funded program for students in Arizona. Children living on tribal lands in Arizona qualify!”

The site has since been changed to correct several errors, including that the program is called the Empowerment Scholarship Account program and that it is a state program in Arizona, not a program of the school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children. The contact number and email to inquire about the program are from American Federation for Children.

American Federation for Children did not return phone calls and emails for comment. The Republic has not been able to reach the principal at Hilltop Christian School after leaving a message with staff on Monday.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools, which helped lead the campaign to successfully repeal the 2017 ESA expansion, said it appeared that the children on the Navajo Reservation were being used by special interests pushing school choice, particularly American Federation for Children.

It appears they actively recruited Native American families into unknowingly breaking the law (by using ESA at an out-of-state school) and now that the state has discovered the problem, instead of AFC admitting their role and helping the families use existing, legal solutions, they’re doubling down on exploiting them in order to try and rewrite the law,” Penich-Thacker said.

Rather than give the Voucher Vultures the opening they want to expand Arizona taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers to private out-of-state schools, the correct solution is as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman proposes,  forgiveness for the Navajo children who unwittingly participated in this illegal scheme by American Federation for Children to use them as pawns in their game. The state of Arizona should pursue Hilltop Christian School for reimbursement of the funds it wrongly received from the state as part of this illegal scheme.

It is time that we start cracking down on these evil bastard Voucher Vultures from the Goldwater Institute and American Federation For Children. Their goal is to privatize education for profit, and to end public education as required by the Arizona Constitution.