The Arizona Republic reports that Arizona Senate approves school voucher expansion; House continues debate:

With dozens of parents protesting at the state Capitol, Senate Republicans advanced on Thursday legislation to expand the state’s school voucher program.


The 16-13 Senate vote on SB 1431, largely along party lines, came as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on the proposal to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program and as Gov. Doug Ducey continued meeting with key lawmakers to discuss the program.

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It was unclear whether proponents in the House would muster votes to pass the legislation as amended by the Senate.

 The legislation introduced by Republicans Debbie Lesko, of Peoria, and John Allen, of Scottsdale, would have allowed all of the state’s 1.1 million public students to use the program by 2021. Instead, Senate Republicans changed the legislation to allow within several years all students to apply for the program but limit the number who become eligible.

The limit would be based on the number of students using the program during the 2021-2022 school year, with a maximum enrollment of about 30,000 students. Until 2022, the current enrollment cap — 0.5 percent of the total public school population or about 5,500 addition students a year — would remain in place.

The current cap is set to expire in 2019.

‘A pragmatic solution’

During debate in the Senate on the proposed amendment, Republicans advocated for the proposal and Democrats opposed it.

Several dozen public school advocates watched from the gallery, among them a young woman who was removed from the Senate gallery for trying to hang a banner reading “Say NO!” to ESAs.

“As a body, we support all education, whether it’s in a district school, a charter school, private school, online school or homeschool,” said Lesko in explaining her yes vote. “This ESA legislation will just provide one more option for parents to improve education for their child.”

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who wrote the amendment, told senators, “I am not a proponent of ESAs. I am not a proponent of no ESAs. I am simply a senator trying to find a pragmatic solution between two warring factions here in the state,” he said, adding, “This amendment is to find what I thought is the best happy medium. This amendment will give the opportunity to private schools to belly up to the bar and prove they can deliver the results in the next six years.

“…It gives us six years of some peace and quiet in this body to let this program do its thing and prove to us that the private schools can deliver superior results from this experiment.”

Democrats, who are the minority party, focused on concerns that the program would be used by more-affluent families to subsidize private school tuition bills. They argued that expansion of the program could lead to the dismantling of a public education system that is already underfunded.

A Republic analysis found that counter to its characterization as a benefit to lower-income students in poor-performing schools, students abandoning higher-performing districts in more-affluent areas are largely using the program.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said he believes the program will most benefit wealthy families who might already plan to send their children to private school. He said Thursday’s battle over expanding the ESA program reflects the broader fight “over the future of public education” in Arizona.

“We’re looking at a transfer from the have-nots to the haves,” he said. “A lot of people have said this is a six-year experiment. I don’t believe we should experiment on our children.”

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said in opposing the legislation, “I cannot in good conscience condone the segregation that will happen by expanding school vouchers.”

Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, of Phoenix, joined Democrats to vote against it. Democratic Sen. Robert Meza, a Phoenix Democrat, was absent.

The plan would save the state’s general fund $3.4 million in fiscal year 2021, according to a fiscal note by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. The committee estimated the original legislation to expand the program to all 1.1 million students would cost the general fund an estimated $24 million annually in 2021.

The ESA legislation adopted by the Senate also:

  • Allows all public students to qualify for the program. Currently, eligibility is limited. For example, students are eligible if they have special learning needs, attend poor-performing schools, have been placed into foster care, live on a Native American reservation, have siblings in the program, or are the children of active members of the military.
  • Removes the ability for parents to use ESA funds for college savings accounts. That practice came under scrutiny following an Arizona Republic story highlighting possible illegal use of the accounts.
  • Bases funding for new participants on district-funding levels rather than charter-school levels, which are higher. Students in the program by June 2017 and those leaving charter schools would keep higher funding levels.
  • Gives low-income students and children who are or have been in foster care 100 percent of funds for private schools and other educational expenses. Currently students receive 90 percent of funds. Low-income is defined as families earning 250 percent or less of the federal poverty level, or about $61,000 annually for a family of four.
  • Requires schools that have 50 or more students who receive ESAs and that administers standardized tests to publicly make available the aggregate test scores of their students. Currently private schools are not required to make test scores public, but few private schools are likely to meet the testing and enrollment criteria.

Governor holed up

The governor, who has avoided taking a public stance on a proposed full expansion of the divisive Empowerment Scholarship Account program, continued behind-the-scenes meetings with key lawmakers Thursday.

The legislators who have met with him said the governor pressed them to support ESA expansion with the amendments.

Ducey’s spokesman, Patrick Ptak, did not respond to inquiries from The Republic about the governor’s stance on the Senate’s ESA proposal, the lawmakers he was meeting with, and who from his team was involved in negotiations.

Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, who opposes ESA expansion because public schools are inadequately funded, confirmed Thursday he met with the governor and they discussed ESAs. In a text message to the newspaper, Coleman described the conversation as cordial.

“I believe the governor wants every child to have the best educational opportunities possible,” Coleman wrote. “We just differ on how to implement changes to accomplish that.”

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, another opponent of ESA expansion, said she was scheduled to meet with the governor, as well as Rep. Michelle Udall, of Mesa.

Outside the executive tower on Thursday morning, parents gathered to urge lawmakers and the governor to stand down on the legislation. They held signs that read “Fund public education,” “No to Lesko,” “No vouchers,” and “Proud public school teacher No to vouchers.”

Stopping this unconstitutional bill comes down to Tea-Publicans in the House voting against this bill. If it passes it will be challenged in court, at taxpayer expense.

UPDATE: Thursday evening the House voted 31-28 to approve the amended bill and send it to Governor Doug Ducey for his signature.

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The Capitol Times reports that:

Spectators in the House gallery chanted “shame, shame” when the tally was announced.

Ducey appeared to be cheering on fellow Republicans as the House debated the massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program.

The governor sent out a tweet as the House began debate, embracing the state’s school choice history.

The governor wrote: “Arizona has been the nation’s leader in educational & parental choice for two decades. Let’s keep it going, & help all Arizona kids succeed!”

Governor Ducey did not even wait for the ink to dry on the bill. The Arizona Republic reports, Gov. Doug Ducey signs expansion of Arizona’s school-voucher program:

Late Thursday night, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law an expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, his spokesman said, which will allow any student to use taxpayer dollars to pay private-school tuition or for other educational expenses.

The legislation, sent to Ducey by Republicans in the Legislature after a marathon session Thursday, is not as expansive as the original proposal, which would have allowed all 1.1 million public-school students to use the program by 2021. Instead, the legislation will allow within several years all students to apply for the program but limits the number who could become eligible.

An estimated 5,500 additional students would be allowed to sign up each year, but no more than about 30,000 could sign up by 2022. While the program would be capped at a lower number than originally proposed, Democrats and moderate Republicans seized on the expansion as evidence of conservatives’ desire to “dismantle” public education because the ESA program takes money from public schools and directs it to private and sometimes religious schools.

This is unconstitutional. 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;”

In Cain v. Horne (Cain II), 220 Ariz. 77, 202 P.3d 1178 (2009), the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s previous attempt at a “vouchers for all” program as unconstitutional.

[A] divided House of Representatives approved the plan 31-28, with more conservative Republicans fending off criticism from moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Proponents said the changes would allow more parents to choose schools that best meet their children’s needs, while adding more academic and financial accountability.

Scottsdale Rep. John Allen, a Republican and a bill sponsor, told members that public funding of private schools for some parents “could be one of the greatest moments of their lives.”

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, had opposed the measure because the original bill would have allowed the cap on scholarship recipients to expire, but she changed her mind and supported the amended measure. She said the changes were “better than the current program.”

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, voted in favor of the measure but added that politically he is in a “no win” position.

“I’m going to get it from both sides,” he said. “Maybe it’s time for me to be unelected, I guess. I don’t know. However — and I say this with all humility — I struggled with this issue.”

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, in voting no, said she is a proponent of school choice, but added, “We don’t need more choices. We need better choices. In order to do that, we’ve got to improve the schools that we have.”

Further, she said, “I think that entitlement programs should be very strictly constructed, and very strictly based on need,” she said, noting private schools aren’t required to report standardized test results to the state.

* * *

Republican Rep. Todd Clodfelter of Tucson was among the lawmakers who spoke with Ducey this week. He voted against the bill.

“He urged me to reconsider,” Clodfelter said, but he noted that he had heard from many constituents who urged him to oppose it.

“I think as a society we put money into pools for the benefit of the community … and when we start allowing it to be divvied up by personal choice, we’re eroding that potential.”

* * *

Ducey was not publicly visible, but his influence on the legislation was felt in both chambers as he and his administration met with key lawmakers to press for their support.

* * *

The legislation gives Ducey, who touts himself as both a proponent of school-choice and public schools, a win with conservatives and national school-choice groups. And it comes as he has proposed more money be added to the budget for K-12 public education. [Not really.]

The Senate, meanwhile, is controlled by Sen. Steve Yarbrough, a school-choice proponent who reaps personal financial benefits of a separate school-choice program. Throughout the session, the Chandler senator repeatedly told The Arizona Republic he hoped ESA expansion legislation would advance.

The House of Representatives is overseen by Rep. J.D. Mesnard, another Chandler Republican who is favorable to school-choice. His chief of staff is Michael Hunter, a previous top staffer for the Goldwater Institute, a key proponent of the legislation. Hunter urged members last year to pass similar legislation. Mesnard also hired a former top staffer of the Center for Arizona Policy, which played a key role in passing the measure.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Richard Herrera, an Arizona State University associate professor of political science. “You’ve got everyone in place that they need to expand — they’re taking the opportunity to do it while they have it.

“Their fortunes are tied to the governor, and to the Senate leader,” Herrera added. “This is them clearly taking the opportunity when it’s being presented to them.”

This unconstitutional law will now be challenged in court, and our lawless Tea-Publican legislature and governor will use your taxpayer dollars to defend their lawlessness in court.