PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5)
All eyes are on Arizona as a recently-passed bill hangs in the balance, facing a groundswell of opposition.
In one month, we will know if a referendum to overturn SB 1431 will appear on the election ballot next November.
It was one of the most hotly-contested issues at the Capitol this spring.
Parents, teachers and business leaders came out in droves to protest the expansion of Arizona’s controversial school voucher program.
The current program, passed in 2011, allows an eligible student to take 90 percent of their district’s per pupil funding and use that taxpayer money at the private school of their choice, through what’s known as an Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA.
The original goal of the program was to benefit families with special needs students. According to the Department of Education, they make up 58% of the program’s enrollment and the average award is around $20,000 for each child with special needs.
Foster kids, military kids, those living on reservations and students coming from D- or F-rated schools are also available to access the program, along with all of their siblings.
The expansion means all 1.1 million students in Arizona would be eligible to use public money for private school on a graduated first-come-first-served basis.
For now, the expansion is capped at 30,000 by the year 2022.
The contentious voucher expansion bill passed by just one vote in April. Gov. Ducey signed it immediately, announcing it as a role model of school choice for the entire nation.
The move prompted one group to fight back.
“What people want and what our legislators are doing for us, aren’t connecting. Arizonans want good public schools,” says Dawn Penitch-Thacker.
She’s one of the founding members of Save Our Schools, a grassroots organization that’s determined to put the new law before voters next fall. To do that, the group needs to collect more than 75,000 signatures by August 1.
“Our schools are not broken. They’re just broke. Anytime you see a program that could de-fund the education that today’s children are getting, we’re gonna feel that ripple effect in Arizona for years and years,” says Penich-Thacker.
This year, the school voucher program took $50M out of the public education system into private schools.
Save Our Schools says the expansion bill aims to siphon away millions more of those critical dollars.
“In Arizona, our public schools have less to work with today than they did 20 years ago. Out of the entire country, we are 48th out of 50 for how we invest in our public schools,” says Penich-Thacker.
The American Federation for Children, formerly run by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is the special interest group behind the expansion bill. Their lone issue is school choice.
“It’s the wave of the future,” says Kim Martinez, the organization’s communications director.
“Arizona was one of the very first states where this organization started and our effort started, and it is incredibly important to us to keep and preserve school choice in this state,” says Martinez.
Martinez says in the past five years, the ESA program has benefited hundreds of Arizona’s families. One in nine students enrolled in the program left low-performing schools, and a vast majority of kids with special needs were able to find schools that better suited their specific circumstances than their district’s public school.
We’re sitting in a school right now where kids learn here because they have Asperger’s, and when they were in the public school, they were being bullied. Almost every single child that attends this school has some horrific bullying story because their social skills are not the norm,” explained Martinez in an interview at Gateway Academy in Phoenix.
There’s little argument some special needs children require a specialized education.
The difference now means all Arizona children are eligible under the new expansion.
Currently, more than 3,500 students are enrolled in the program. The expansion adds 5,500 more every year, which might make it harder for parents like Susie Edwards.
Edwards has four boys. Two of them have autism and together qualify for $50,000 a year under the ESA program.
In a letter to fellow ESA parents, she writes:
“Our specific benefits will be significantly diluted by the addition of a much larger population. Basically, our children will again be placed at the back of the line.”
Edwards contends special needs kids are being used to open the door for other families with a different agenda:
“Our children are being paraded in front of legislators as the justification for a voucher expansion for those seeking a private religious education when that voucher system has already passed any legal threats.”
Using taxpayer money for a religious education presents another set of issues.
“It goes back to Jefferson and Madison. We should not use tax money to pay for religious education. And right now, with these empowerment scholarship accounts, that’s exactly what we’re doing,” says attorney Don Peters.
Peters spent his career fighting to make public schools better by trying to protect funding. He says strong schools are the key to everything.
“We all have a stake in how good the public schools are and what kind of people they’re turning out. The last thing we need really is to encourage people to opt out,” says Peters.
He agrees the school funding argument is clearly valid at a time when public schools are scraping by, but for him, it’s secondary to the problems presented by mixing religion and government.
“I don’t think you should be taxed to pay for me to raise my kids in my religious tradition when you may not agree with it, or vice versa,” says Peters.
To get around any constitutional hurdles, ESA taxpayer money is not paid directly to the student’s school of choice.
“The money goes to the parent and the parent decides what they want to do with it,” explains AFC’s Martinez.
Because that money goes right into the hands of parents, the program faces issues with accountability and oversight.
AFC says academic accountability is on the parent. The organization says tracking taxpayer money spent on the program is a transparent process.
“It’s complete, open checkbook-like full disclosure accountability on that. You can see where every penny is going,” says Martinez, though there is no comprehensive list which schools receive ESA money and how much on Arizona’s Department of Education’s website, which administers the program.
A report from the state’s auditor general last year revealed more than $102,000 was misspent, involving 138 student ESAs in just a six-month period.
“If this is really about fiscal responsibility and excellent academics, why wasn’t that written into the bill?” asks Penich-Thacker.
The Arizona Attorney General’s office tells 3TV, 22 cases of ESA fraud were sent to their criminal division.
In one case, a mom enrolled her two children in the program and then received debit cards loaded with taxpayer money and bought a big screen TV, a smart phone and a couple computer tablets. She then enrolled her kids in public school, a violation of the program.
In another case, a special needs school in Maricopa passed itself off as a free non-profit, then cashed-in on a lot of ESA money collected as tuition.
“That is such a tiny percentage. It’s not even one percent of families that have ever tried to defraud the system,” says Martinez. “In a perfect world, everybody would have every option on the table to them, regardless of your income, your neighborhood, what you can and can’t afford.”
But the reality according to Save Our Schools is the overwhelming majority of Arizona’s families have chosen public schools and want to protect their choice.
“The choice that we think is most important, is the choice of Arizonans to say whether they support public education or subsidies for private and religious education,” says Penich-Thacker.
Save Our Schools needs 75,321 valid signatures by the first week of August to put the referendum before voters on the November ballot in 2018. If that happens, the voucher expansion will be on hold until the election. The current ESA program will not be affected.