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Arizona’s adoption of the largest school voucher plan in the US faces a challenge

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Republican Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday signed into law a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher system, even as he faced a vowed effort by public school advocates to block the bill and ask voters to wipe it out during the November election.

PHOENIX (AP) — Republican Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday signed a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher system, even as he faced a vowed effort by public school advocates to block the bill and ask voters to wipe it out during the November election.

The extension signed by Ducey would allow any parent in Arizona to take public money that currently goes to the K-12 public school system and use it to pay for their children’s private school tuition or other educational expenses.

If the bill goes into effect, Arizona already has the broadest education options in the country and will have the most comprehensive voucher system.

An estimated 60,000 private students and about 38,000 home-schoolers could immediately receive up to $7,000 a year, though a small number currently receive vouchers. All 1.1 million students who attend traditional district and charter schools would also be eligible to leave their public schools and receive money to attend private schools. About a third are already eligible, but only about 12,000 students statewide now use the system.

Ducey championed “school choice” during his eight years in office. In 2017, he signed a universal voucher expansion with enrollment caps that was put on the ballot by a grassroots group called Save Our Schools Arizona.

Voters soundly rejected the expansion by a 2-to-1 vote in the 2018 election, but supporters of what are formally called “Empowerment Scholarship Bills” pushed through the new expansions anyway. The universal voucher bill only passed with the support of a majority of Republican lawmakers in the legislative session, which ended early on June 25.

Save Our Schools Arizona Executive Director Beth Lewis said her group will immediately send the legislation to a vote under a provision in the Arizona Constitution that allows opponents of new laws to collect the signatures of 5% of eligible voters and block it until the next general vote. . elections.

In this case, they would need to collect almost 119,000 valid signatures, and supporters usually add a 25% cushion. They must collect them and submit them to the Secretary of State by the end of September to prevent the law from taking effect and to include it in November.

“I have every confidence that we will be able to pass HB2853,” Lewis said in an interview. “Our network of volunteers across the state is up and ready.”

Lewis and other public school advocates say vouchers take money from an already underfunded public school system, while supporters say the program allows parents to choose the best education for their children.

Lewis said the new voucher law’s price tag could take away more than lawmakers added in new school funding this year, approaching $1 billion in current and one-time funding.

“In a nutshell, this bill would divert more than $1 billion annually from public schools to unaccountable private academies, micro schools and home schools,” Lewis said. “And we just can’t let that happen.”

Many students who participate in the voucher program are disabled. Adding current private and home-schooled students, she said $400 million to $600 million “will go out the window overnight, with automatic eligibility on September 26.”

The Legislature’s budget analysts estimate the cost of the expansion to be much lower, at $125 million over two years, but acknowledge those numbers are highly speculative and based on new spending, not public school losses. Many private school students receive money from the tax credit program, but on average, these payments are much smaller than vouchers, so many are likely to switch.

Ducey has been touting the expansion on social media for the past two weeks and touted mentions in conservative news outlets in a press release announcing the bill’s signing.

Ducey called the signing “a monumental moment for all Arizona students” in a statement. Our children will no longer be locked away in underperforming schools.”

However, most of the underperforming schools are in low-income areas with little access to private schools, and parents rely on local public schools that have been underfunded for years.

He didn’t mention the overwhelming rejection of the 2017 expansion, nor the expected new challenge. Instead, he touted Arizona’s leadership in private school choice.

“With this legislation, Arizona is establishing itself as the best state for school choice and as the first state in the nation to offer all families the opportunity to choose the school that’s best for them,” he said.

The voucher law does not contain accountability provisions such as the testing that some Republicans have sought. There is also limited control over distributed funds.

The program applied only to students with disabilities when it began in 2011, but has expanded significantly over the years to include many others, including students who live on American Indian reservations, attend low-performing public schools, and other groups .

According to the Arizona Department of Education, nearly 12,000 current students received $196 million for the school year that just ended. About $20 million of that has yet to be paid.

Parents receive 90% of the public funds that normally go to the local public school, for private school tuition and other educational expenses. Students with disabilities can receive up to $40,000 for specialized therapy.

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