EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Arizona Republicans on Thursday pressed ahead with a plan to give the parents of 1.1 million children the choice of keeping them in public K-12 schools or getting paid after enrolling them in private learning institutions.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed H.R. 2853, which creates universal eligibility for the so-called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts previously reserved for special needs students. Opponents plan to gather the necessary 119,000 signatures to block the law from going into effect until voters in the November mid-term election decide if they agree with it.
“This is a monumental moment for all of Arizona’s students,” Ducey said after the signing. “Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools. Today, we are unlocking a whole new world of opportunity for them and their parents.”
The Republican majority legislature approved the bill last month along party lines. A similar plan failed in a 2018 referendum by a 2-1 margin. Now a group called Save Our Schools Arizona is spearheading efforts to have voters defeat it again.
“This bill will siphon $1 billion from public schools every year to unaccountable private academies, micro schools and homeschools, and we simply can’t let that happen,” Save Our Schools Executive Director Beth Lewis told The Associated Press.
The bill did not include a specific dollar amount for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. That’s because it’s based on a formula contingent on how many students enroll in ESAs, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education told Border Report.
As of the third quarter of fiscal year 2022, only 11,775 students were receiving ESA funds, said the spokesman, Jimmy Arwood.
While public education watchdogs put the new price tag of school choice in Arizona at $1 billion, the Legislature’s budget analysis office estimates disbursements at $125 million in the next two years.
Under the new law, families would receive more than $6,500 per year per child for private school, homeschooling, micro schools, tutoring, or other educational services outside the public school system.
The analysis also shows that Arizona private schools have the capacity to absorb only up to 5 percent of the 859,000 public school students who just became eligible for ESA funds. That’s about 36,000 students.
“In Arizona, we fund students, not systems, because we know one size does not fit all students,” said House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who sponsored the bill. “It was my privilege to sponsor the most expansive school choice law in the nation, opening Empowerment Scholarship Account eligibility to all school-age children without restriction.”
About half the students in Arizona public schools are Hispanic.