Despite summer vacation, regardless of the Legislature’s recess, it is obvious that Arizona Republicans are ready to rumble on school vouchers.
In a July 19 press release, Oro Valley Rep. Mark Finchem accused the Department of Education of consistently failing to approve applications for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) within the 45-day time period set forth in state law.
Last week Diane Douglas, the ousted state superintendent, criticized her successor, Democrat Kathy Hoffman, for delaying ESA applications and hinted that the delays are political. Douglas noted that Hoffman has opposed the voucher program in the past.
Why does this matter?
The future of public education in Arizona may be at stake. Clamoring by current and former state officials sets the stage for a debate we’re confident the Legislature will take up when they reconvene in January. Expect lawmakers to consider whether to remove the Department of Education from its role as overseer of the ESA program.
Empowerment scholarships allow parents to take 90 percent of the tax money that would otherwise go directly to a local public school and put it toward private-school tuition.
In 2017, at the urging of Gov. Doug Ducey, Arizona lawmakers attempted to expand the number of ESAs to all K-12 students, about 1.1 million kids. Legislators eventually approved a much smaller expansion of the program, but even that was killed a year later when state voters rejected Proposition 305. The initiative lost by a 65 to 35 percent margin, which should have provided lawmakers with a clear indication that Arizona residents don’t want an expansion of the ESA program.
Republicans are undeterred. Two months after the overwhelming outcome, Rep. Finchem introduced a bill to remove some of the ESA oversight from the Department of Education and give it to the Treasurer’s office. A few months after that, GOP lawmakers considered offering the program to kids attending schools in New Mexico.
Efforts to expand ESA are aimed directly at public schools. Every tax dollar allocated to the program reduces state funding available to pay public school teachers and support local districts.
The consequence of drastically reducing state funding for public schools will be devastating in rural communities — especially throughout Cochise County. Reducing enrollment at public schools by encouraging students to enroll in private schools will result in fewer educational opportunities for all children.