A volunteer crew is seeking to give voters the final say on one of the most controversial education laws passed in this year’s legislative session.
Save Our Schools Arizona has to collect a minimum of 75,321 valid signatures from registered voters before Aug. 8 in order to put a hold on SB 1431, which would extend school vouchers for any public school student. If the referendum drive is successful, the law will not go into effect until voters give it a final OK on the November 2018 ballot.
The state has slowly expanded the use of “empowerment scholarship accounts,” or ESAs, since they were first created in 2011. The accounts essentially give parents who pull their kids from public schools a debit card worth $4,645 (for kindergarten through 8th grade) or $4,904 (for high school students) that can be used to pay tuition at private and religious schools, or to buy school supplies for home-schooled students, or even saved for future education costs.
ESAs have previously been limited to special classes of children, such as learning-disabled kids, foster children or children who live on Native American reservations. Roughly 3,000 students now take advantage of the program.
But the new legislation removes those qualifying criteria. While the number of ESAs is limited to 30,000 students through 2022, critics of the legislation say that cap could be lifted by future legislatures. Indeed, right after the bill passed, Goldwater Institute Executive Director Darcy Olsen sent out a triumphant letter to supporters promising to have the cap lifted next year, although she later apologized for the premature call.
“The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by what neighborhood their parents can afford to live in,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement after he signed the bill. “Through Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, thousands of Arizona students have benefited from an education that’s customized to their unique needs and circumstances. Today, we lead the nation again with a bill that’s fiscally responsible, improves accountability and transparency, and prioritizes low-income students and families. When parents have options, kids win.”
But critics of the legislation complain that it will drain more money from public schools at a time when the state is spending less than nearly any other state.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, an ASU professor who is leading the referendum effort, says the expansion of vouchers will benefit Arizona’s highest earners at the expense of the majority of schoolchildren.
“Arizona is already the bottom of the barrel when it comes to how much we invest in our public school system,” Penich-Thacker said. “We believe to come up with a program that takes even more money out of the public school system is highly problematic. This is very definition of taking from the many in order to privilege the few.”
Penich-Thacker suggested that, because tuition at most private schools is higher than the voucher provided by the state, many families that would take advantage of the program would likely still need to subsidize the education, so it would mostly benefit higher earners who decide to pull their kids from public schools.
“A very average private school tuition is $15,000 a year, and that’s for one student,” Penich-Thacker said. “The vouchers can be as low as $5,000 per year, so that means that that family has to make up $10,000 a year per child in order to go to that private school. And this is exactly why studies have shown that vouchers are used almost exclusively by affluent families already paying private school tuition, and now this voucher is a coupon for them.”
The referendum effort does not have a big money backer, so Penich-Thacker is counting on volunteers to gather the necessary signatures.
“We have an amazing force of volunteers across the state,” Penich-Thacker said. “We have hundreds right here in Southern Arizona. These are parents, teachers, grandparents, concerned citizens, retirees who are literally hitting the streets, standing outside of libraries, carrying petitions to their families and friends and just collecting as many signatures as possible. It’s going very well because so many people want education to be prioritized for once in Arizona.”
For more information about the referendum campaign, visit saveourschoolsarizona.org.