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House Approves K-12 Budget Bill Without ESA Expansion, Adds Civic Education Curriculum

A proposal to expand the state’s school voucher program that passed in the state Senate earlier this week failed to pass in the House on Friday when three Republican representatives — Reps. Michelle Udall, Joel John and Joanne Osborne — joined Democrats in voting against it. 

Teachers saw this as one bright spot in the day, said Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas.

"They have been a failed experiment in Arizona and we need to be investing in our public schools instead of diverting resources to private and religious schools," he said. 

But they were disappointed by other legislation packed into the budget such as a last-minute amendment that mandates the State Board of Education work with the School of Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom — so-called  “freedom schools” designed to teach conservative values — develop and adopt a statewide civics education curriculum. Such a move is unprecedented, said Democratic Rep. Jennifer Pawlik and former teacher herself.

“Please note that when a state mandates curriculum it flattens out the school choice environment, which defeats the purpose," she said during the debate on Friday.

The amendment also adds a comparative discussion of political ideologies such as communism and totalitarianism to competency requirements for graduation. These ideas are some of the greatest threats to the globe, said Republican Rep. Jake Hoffman said. 

“To teach our children about the evils of communism and totalitarianism is right. It is our duty and responsibility to do that," he said. 

But that policy was not included in the Senate’s version of the budget. Lawmakers will have to reconcile the differences between the bills before they send them to the governor. 

Teachers Disappointed

Arizona teachers were happy to see the House vote down a proposal to expand the state’s school voucher program, but they didn’t feel the budget approved by the House today went far enough in terms of K-12 funding. 

This comes as the state is flush with cash in rainy day funds and a surplus, Thomas said. 

“Legislators had a tremendous opportunity and had a tremendous opportunity to invest in our students and schools, and instead they passed a state budget that is anti-teacher and anti-public education," he said. 

Teachers were also concerned with the addition of legislation that would fine teachers for discussing so-called  controversial topicsin schools, or suspend or revoke their teacher’s certificate. It also bans districts and charter schools from requiring students and staff receive a COVID-19 vaccine or wear a face covering to participate in in-person classes. 

Teachers were also disappointed to see the House pass a bill that would create a loophole for small-business owners to avoid paying the voter-approved income tax surcharge known as Prop. 208 that proponents estimated would raise around $900 millions in new funding for schools. State budget analysts estimate the new tax category could lower revenues collected by a one-third, undermining the work that teachers, parents and other education advocates did to get it on the ballot, and passed by voters in November. 

"it shouldn't be this hard to get the schools our students deserve," Thomas said. 

Teachers and Democrats are considering pursuing litigation against the tax bill or challenging it at the ballot. 

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