When last we checked in on private school vouchers in this space, it was spring and Republicans in the Legislature were once again looking to expand the program. The parental choice advocates had taken a break in 2016 long enough for Gov. Doug Ducey to convince voters (barely) that Republicans were all for more money for public schools – even if Prop. 123 did raid the state land trust and settled a lawsuit for less than a judge said the schools were owed.
Less than a year later, the GOP majority was back looking for more public money for private schools. Never mind that even after Prop. 123, state spending on schools remained in the bottom five states, pay was so bad that up to 40 percent of new teachers were leaving after their first two years, and more than half of all students weren’t passing the new AzMerit math and reading tests.
Prevously, the vouchers -- technically called "Empowerment Scholarship Accounts'' -- were available only to students in special categories, such as those with disabilities, in foster families, living on reservations or attending schools rated D or F. About 3,500 youngsters now get vouchers that are worth upwards of $6,000, with larger amounts based on students with special needs.
SB 1431 removes all such requirements, though the compromise legislation reduces the amount of the voucher and caps the total at 30,000 a year by 2023 -- or until lawmakers vote to remove it.
In addition to the mantra of parental choice being best for their child’s education, voucher advocates, led by Sen. Debbie Lesko, contend the program will be cost-neutral to the state – the dollars follow the student to private school, leaving the public schools with one less student to pay to educate.
They also say it will spur competition that will make public schools more responsive and efficient – and voucher parents will vote with their feet if private schools don’t live up to expectations.
We have heard these arguments before, and they are both incomplete and misleading. Privatizing education is not just about the money but about breaking faith with the ideal that it should be transparent, accountable and a democratizing force in society that separates church and state. Contrary to Lesko’s assertions, public schools can’t just become more efficient as students are siphoned off – they must maintain school buildings and buses, operate a cafeteria and serve students of all intellectual, emotional and physical abilities. The mainstream publics have begun to place students into different academic tracks, but at least those students still rub elbows during the school day with children of all socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities.
Now a group of voucher opponents has managed to have SB 1431 suspended after turning in 110,000 signatures on referendum petitions for November 2018. Lesko seems dismissive, strongly hinting that she will get her GOP colleagues to simply repeal the bill and pass a slightly different one that would require an entirely new petition drive next year. Such a tactic sounds to us like voter nullification, similar to the new laws requiring strict compliance with the smallest details of the citizen initiative laws.
But at some point, we expect expanded private school vouchers to come before voters unless pro-voucher lawmakers are voted out and replaced with ones who will repeal it without a statewide vote. It is a watershed issue for both public education and community well-being in general – economic inequality is already on the rise and a growth in private schools will only accelerate that trend.
Public schools aren’t perfect, but they deserve a funding structure and an operationally level playing field that gives them a better chance to succeed. Arizona lawmakers have already skewed the balance, and we’d urge state election officials and judges to allow this important issue to come to a vote of the people before more harm is done.