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Republicans again propose universal school vouchers for 1.1 million Arizona students

Republicans in the Arizona House on Wednesday pushed ahead with their new plan for a universal expansion of the state's private school voucher program that they have tied to new funding for schools in an effort to prevent a voter referendum.

Majority Republicans see the effort as the culmination of more than a decade of work to expand parents' ability to bypass traditional district schools and standalone charter schools and allow parents to use public money to pay tuition at religious or other private schools.

But public school advocates slammed the proposal at a news conference held just before the House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on the proposal and eventually advanced it to the full House on a 6-4 party-line vote.

They argue that Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expansion just four years ago and that the state's public schools remain woefully underfunded despite new spending approved by the Legislature and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in recent years.

“We must prioritize fully funding our public education system,” Tempe educator Rodrigo Palacios said at the news conference. “Siphoning desperately needed funds away from public schools by funding a voter-opposed voucher expansion ... flies in the face of the will of Arizonans and the needs of our families.”

Palacios was joined by other speakers at the event organized by education groups including Save Our Schools Arizona, which was formed to oppose the last universal school voucher expansion enacted by the Legislature.

Save Our Schools Executive Director Beth Lewis, a public school teacher, told the committee later that all she hears from Republicans at the Capitol is criticism of public schools and public school teachers.

“It's deployed time and time again to sell private school vouchers under the guise of choice,” Lewis said. “These vouchers are a scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy.”

She called the voucher program, formally called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, “a grift."

The proposals are being championed by House Majority Leader Ben Toma, who said he has worked for months to craft the “school choice" proposal and disputed that the 2018 vote showed Arizonans do not want an expansion of the ESA program.

“Yes, the voters struck down an imperfect solution,” Toma said. “This is very different and the situation is very different now than it was back then.”

Arizona’s constitution allows opponents of laws enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor to block them by collecting signatures of 5% of qualified voters. If they do, the measure is placed on the next general election ballot. The previous expansion was rejected by two-thirds of the state's voters.

The new voucher expansion proposal contains a poison pill designed to prevent that effort. It is linked to new school funding, $200 million in ongoing cash and another $200 million in one-time money, and that funding will only be allocated if the voucher expansion is enacted and goes into effect.

Democrats, united in opposition to the voucher bill, liked some parts of the school funding proposal. The $200 million in ongoing cash provides extra money for low-income schools called “opportunity weight” and boosts funding for students just learning English.

“We really do need to (give) more funding for students who are in poverty and are receiving free and reduced price lunch,” Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler of Paradise Valley said. “So that is a shocking inclusion in this bill and I'm glad to see it there.”

But she and other Democrats criticized other parts of the school funding bill, including the $200 million in one-time cash and that while voucher expansion will take effect on July 1, the new funding doesn't kick in until July 2023.

“Tying it to vouchers makes no sense,” Tempe Democratic Rep. Mitzi Epstein said. “There's no relevant connection in there, except the political one.”

Toma defended linking the bills, noting that doing so is similar to normal budget negotiations and the related horse trading.

“In order to get my vote and many other conservative votes on additional K-12 spending ... we tie it to something else,” Toma said. “In balance it ends up being something that we can all support.”

The fate of the voucher expansion plan is not certain, since Republicans hold only one-vote majorities in the House and Senate and there is at least one GOP member in both chambers not committed to backing the measures. It has no Democratic backing.

Republican Sen. Paul Boyer said Wednesday he is reviewing the proposal but has concerns. And Rep. Michelle Udall said Tuesday that she wanted either more accountability than the limited testing now in the plan or much more money for K-12 schools.

Finding money, for once, isn't a problem. The state is sitting on an unprecedented surplus of more than $5.3 billion even accounting for $1.7 billion in income tax cuts enacted by the Legislature over unified Democratic opposition last year.

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.