Arizona just adopted the largest private school voucher program in the country. Under the bill, all the state’s 1.1 million students would be eligible to use the state’s education savings account (ESA) voucher. The bill passed despite the fact that, just four years ago, 65% of voters voted to overturn a 2017 law that would have expanded the exact same ESA voucher.
Legislators should have listened to the voters and rejected this bill. Vouchers funnel desperately needed funds away from public schools to private, primarily religious education. They don’t improve educational outcomes, and they can increase segregation. Another big problem is that vouchers often lack oversight and accountability measures.
In fact, vouchers in Arizona specifically have a history of being subject to fraud and abuse. State audits in both 2016 and 2018 found that parents were misusing the program. According to the 2018 audit, in just one year, parents made more than 900 purchases totaling more than $700,000 at unapproved merchants for things like makeup and clothing.
Three Republican Representatives – Michelle Udall, Joel John and Joanne Osborne – had previously opposed bills to expand this ESA voucher, including by voting against a budget amendment last year, because of accountability issues. In the final two weeks of the session, it seemed the lack of accountability measures would kill this statewide expansion bill as well. When the bill was heard in committee, Rep. Udall said that the testing provisions in the bill were too weak and would “not prevent bad actors from taking advantage of children and parents.” And when the bill was debated on the House floor a week later, Republicans amended it to remove the very minimal testing requirements it did have.
Yet Udall and her two colleagues all changed their votes to yes when the bill came to the floor, allowing the bill to pass. It’s unclear why they changed their minds, but it could have something to do with the millions of dollars that ultra-wealthy, anti-public education donors like the Kochs and the DeVoses spend on lobbying and campaigns in Arizona. One thing is certain: Public schools will suffer the consequences of their votes.
Fortunately, the fight likely isn’t over yet. Save Our Schools Arizona, the group that organized the efforts behind the 2018 vote, is already considering options to overturn this expansion – including another referendum if need be. They would have to collect about 120,000 signatures in the 90 days after the governor signs the bill to get the issue on the ballot.
And on a better note, voucher news from other state legislatures has been pretty good for those of us who are pro-public schools. No states have successfully enacted new voucher programs this year. Both Iowa and Oklahoma were unable to pass voucher bills, despite their respective governors making vouchers a big part of their legislative agendas. The South Carolina Senate killed a voucher bill after the House removed accountability measures. And Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed two bills that would have created new voucher programs.
If you want to be a part of the effort to protect public schools and oppose private school vouchers, you can sign up to join AU and use this tool to tell your state legislators that you oppose vouchers.