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Arizona Senate Passes K-12, Higher Education Budget Bills With Last-Minute Amendments

The Arizona Senate worked through the night to pass budget bills early Wednesday morning. One of these was the K-12 budget bill that included a 200-page amendment that lawmakers received right before they headed to the floor for discussion and vote.

The last-minute amendment by Senate President Karen Fann revived language from previously failed bills. They would expand the state’s school voucher program to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch or are children of veterans.  

This was disappointing to Beth Lewis, executive director of the education advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona. She’s also a parent of students and a Tempe teacher. 

“Seventy percent of Arizona students will now be eligible which could mean hundreds of millions of dollars being syphoned away from our public schools, and I should mention that Arizona voters rejected this idea only two and a half years ago with Prop. 305," she said. 

But parent and school voucher advocate Kayla Svedin believes this expansion will benefit low-income families and students who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and have fallen behind academically during this time. Some of these parents are looking for other educational options for their children, but need resources like school vouchers to pay for them, she said. 

Svedin thinks the language that was folded into the K-12 budget bill is far narrower than the original bill by Sen. Paul Boyer, and said that’s a good thing.

“Our representatives should not be standing in their way to get access to options that they desire," said Svedin, who's also a parent of ESA students and executive director of Empowered Arizona Families, a group that helps families navigate the program.

Another portion of Fann's amendment would ban discussing so-called controversial topics in schools.

Lewis thinks this policy would have a chilling effect on classrooms.  

“It would effectively silence students too because it would really cut down on teachers’ ability to lead critical thinking, discussion, Socratic seminars and really get kids to be able to express their own ideas," she said. 

The Senate's K-12 budget bill also prohibits school districts' or charter schools' governing boards from requiring students or staff use face coverings during school hours or on school property. 

Higher Education

The Arizona Senate also passed a budget bill for higher education. It includes an amendment by Fann that prohibits public universities and community colleges from requiring students to obtain or show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. It also bans them from placing conditions on students who refuse to get vaccinated or disclose their vaccination status in order to attend classes or participate in activities. This is similar to a previous executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey. 

Democratic state Sent. Sally Ann Gonzales voted against the bill. 

“It is wrong to prohibit these institutions, the universities, to decide for themselves and their situation on these medical conditions and what’s happening on their campuses," she said. 

The amended bill would allow a public university to require testing during a COVID-19 outbreak in a student housing setting with approval from the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

Health

State senators also passed a health budget bill, which states that that vaccines which have been authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration such as COVID-19 vaccines may not be required for school attendance. It also states that immunizations must be prescribed by rule prior to being required for school attendance. 

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Rocio Hernandez was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2022.