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Teachers: Private school vouchers are ‘out-of-control’ and need to be curtailed

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Teachers: Private school vouchers are ‘out-of-control’ and need to be curtailed

Jun 05, 2024 | 3:56 pm ET
By Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
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Teachers: Private school vouchers are ‘out-of-control’ and need to be curtailed
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Teachers rally at the Arizona Capitol on June 5, 2024, to advocate for restrictions on the state's school voucher system, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

As the governor and Republican legislators continue to negotiate a budget, educators gathered Wednesday to urge lawmakers to rein in the universal expansion of the state’s school voucher program. 

Members of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, rallied at the state Capitol, where they chanted inside the Senate lobby, outside the House of Representatives and outside of the Executive Tower where Gov. Katie Hobbs’ office is. 

The teachers insisted that Hobbs and lawmakers must put a cap on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, commonly referred to as ESAs, or eliminate the universal expansion of the voucher program altogether. 

Parents of students in the ESA program are given a debit card that can be used to pay for various educational costs, including tuition at private schools and homeschooling supplies. Parents also can save that money for college. 

Hobbs and Republican leaders have been quiet on what negotiations on the state’s budget may include, saying that the discussions are “confidential.” 

But while Hobbs has been vocally critical of the voucher expansion and called for it to be halted or significantly reformed, Republicans universally oppose making any changes to the program that they championed in 2022. Restrictions that Hobbs proposed in January were met with derision by both Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma, who called them “wildly unrealistic.” 

The current fiscal year’s budget was crafted assuming that 68,380 students would take advantage of the program, at a cost to the state of $625 million. In January, the Arizona Department of Education boosted its estimates to 74,000 students and a $723.5 million price tag. 

The reality is that even more students are already participating: At the end of May, more than 75,200 students were enrolled, with a median cost per student of $7,000 to $8,000. 

Teachers: Private school vouchers are ‘out-of-control’ and need to be curtailed
A sign held by a teacher at a rally at the Arizona Capitol on June 5, 2024, to advocate for restrictions on the state’s school voucher system, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Those costs, educators say, are hurting the state’s public schools, which serve more than 90% of Arizona children. 

“We have to fund public education now,” Lisa Vaaler, a 6th grade science teacher at a Phoenix school district, told the crowd gathered inside the Arizona Senate lobby. Vaaler added that they have to “vote out” lawmakers who are not supporting the state’s public education system. 

“Over the years I’ve watched as the funding for public schools is chopped and chopped again,” Stacy Brosius, a 3rd grade teacher at a Peoria public school, said outside of the Arizona House of Representatives building. Public school advocates argued Wednesday that continued hits to public education budgets has led to a drain of talent that schools are struggling to deal with

Brosius also argued that voters overwhelmingly denied a previous attempted expansion to the ESA program via a ballot measure as evidence that Arizonans do not want the expanded program, referring to the 2018 referendum in which voters rejected a previous legislative attempt to universally expand vouchers. 

“The voices and votes of the people of this state have been ignored,” Brosius said. She and others also argued that the expansion is benefiting private schools that are allowed to limit class sizes and reject students, things public schools are legally barred from doing. 

Other educators decried poor conditions in schools that are working with out-of-date material. 

“No student should be learning from a history book made before 9/11,” Anthony Lovio, a 6th grade teacher in Scottsdale, said to the crowd outside of the Executive Tower. 

The educators and public school advocates wanted the lawmakers and Hobbs to know that they’ll “be back” and will vote in November for candidates that support their goals. 

The state’s 2024 fiscal year ends on June 30, and Hobbs and Republican lawmakers must work together to balance this year’s budget and create one for fiscal year 2025 before that deadline. There is a combined estimated shortfall of around $1.3 billion between the two budgets.