GOP mulls plan to get vouch­ers off Nov. bal­lot

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Rob O’Dell

A Repub­li­can state law­maker is dis­cussing with col­leagues and out­side groups a plan that could knock Propo­si­tion 305 off the Novem­ber bal­lot be­fore vot­ers can de­cide the fate of Ari­zona’s ex­panded school-voucher pro­gram.

The goal is to re­peal last year’s legis-

la­tion, which ex­panded the ESA pro­gram to all 1.1 mil­lion pub­lic-school stu­dents, and re­place it with leg­is­la­tion in­tended to ad­dress crit­i­cisms of the ex­pan­sion, ac­cord­ing to more than a half-dozen peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the wide-rang­ing dis­cus­sions.

Sen. Bob Wors­ley, a Repub­li­can from Mesa, has talked in broad terms over the past week with law­mak­ers and out­side groups about new Em­pow­er­ment Schol­ar­ship Ac­count leg­is­la­tion but did not of­fer spe­cific de­tails to The Ari­zona Repub­lic.

The “re­peal and re­place” idea would cir­cum­vent Ari­zona’s ref­er­en­dum process, which al­lows vot­ers to try to veto a law if they gather suf­fi­cient sig­na­tures to place it on the bal­lot.

The “re­peal and re­place” idea has an­gered rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Save Our Schools Ari­zona, which gath­ered more than 100,000 sig­na­tures to re­fer to the bal­lot, as Propo­si­tion 305, the ESA­ex­pan­sion leg­is­la­tion, which gives tax­payer­funded sub­si­dies to families to use for pri­vateschool tu­ition. Save Our Schools Ari­zona rep­re­sen­ta­tives say they will seek a ref­er­en­dum to chal­lenge any new law that ex­pands the voucher pro­gram.

Dis­cus­sion about a voucher re­peal be­tween law­mak­ers and out­side groups comes as many teach­ers, par­ents and ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials are protest­ing low teacher pay and inad­e­quate fund­ing for the state’s pub­lic schools. A new bill could link voucher ex­pan­sion to a sub­stan­tial pay raise for teach­ers, ac­cord­ing to a Save Our Schools Ari­zona leader.

The con­ver­sa­tions have in­cluded top gu­ber­na­to­rial aides, sources say.

The Capi­tol in­sid­ers and ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates are not autho­rized to speak pub­licly about the on­go­ing dis­cus­sions, or did not want to jeop­ar­dize those dis­cus­sions by talk­ing about them to The Repub­lic.

Wors­ley de­clined Mon­day to dis­cuss the talks in de­tail. But in texts, Wors­ley said he is “not push­ing any out­come ... sim­ply try­ing to find com­mon ground on this con­tentious is­sue.” He said, “It is un­clear to me what will re­al­is­ti­cally hap­pen with ESAs this year.”

Last year, Wors­ley bro­kered a com­pro­mise in the wan­ing days of the ses­sion that en­sured enough sup­port from GOP law­mak­ers to ex­pand the ESA pro­gram to all kids, but cap it at 30,000 stu­dents by 2022. Af­ter its pas­sage, school­choice back­ers quickly said they would get the cap lifted.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokes­woman for Save Our Schools Ari­zona, which led the cam­paign to re­fer the ESA-ex­pan­sion leg­is­la­tion to the bal­lot, said sev­eral law­mak­ers and oth­ers at the Capi­tol — whom she de­clined to iden­tify — have ap­proached her in re­cent days to talk about what a voucher re­peal could look like.

Among the ideas was link­ing the “re­peal and re­place” ef­fort to a pay in­crease for Ari­zona teach­ers, Penich-Thacker said.

She said her re­sponse to such over­tures has been the same: If the Ari­zona Leg­is­la­ture re­peals the voucher law and re­places it with an­other ex­panded ver­sion, Save Our Schools will gather sig­na­tures to re­fer the new law to the bal­lot as well.

Crit­ics of ESAs ar­gue the pro­gram is part of a broader strat­egy to un­der­fund the public­school sys­tem.

Save Our Schools’ ref­er­en­dum does not af­fect the cur­rent voucher pro­gram, which lim­its el­i­gi­bil­ity to cer­tain stu­dents, in­clud­ing those with spe­cial needs, those in foster care and those from poorly per­form­ing schools.

“No mat­ter how they sweeten it, we will re­fer it to the bal­lot,” PenichThacker said.

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said the gover­nor and his ad­min­is­tra­tion have met reg­u­larly with ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates, in­clud­ing Save Our Schools.

“Those con­ver­sa­tions have been wide-rang­ing,” Scarpinato said in a writ­ten state­ment. He did not say whether the talks have in­cluded a re­peal-and-re­place pro­posal.

The “re­peal and re­place” dis­cus­sions, as de­scribed to the news­pa­per, also in­clude a pro­posal to keep in place an en­roll­ment cap of about 30,000 stu­dents but give pri­or­ity to cer­tain stu­dents, in­clud­ing low-in­come stu­dents and pos­si­bly oth­ers.

If the slots go un­filled by such stu­dents, they would open to all stu­dents. (The orig­i­nal ex­pan­sion leg­is­la­tion passed last year did not give en­roll­ment pri­or­ity to any stu­dents.)

That pro­vi­sion is in­tended to ad­dress find­ings by The Repub­lic that the pro­gram un­fairly ben­e­fits wealth­ier families re­ceiv­ing a tax­payer sub­sidy to pay for pri­vate school. The news­pa­per’s find­ings run counter to a key con­tention of the law­mak­ers and spe­cial­in­ter­est groups who have pressed to ex­pand the pro­gram: that fi­nan­cially dis­ad­van­taged families from strug­gling schools reap the ben­e­fits of ex­panded school choice.

But even with pri­or­ity sta­tus, lower-in­come stu­dents might be priced out of the pro­gram, since they would still have to come up with the thou­sands of dol­lars to make up the dif­fer­ence be­tween the ESA sub­sidy and the cost of pri­vateschool tu­ition, trans­porta­tion, fees and other costs.

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Steve Yar­brough, a Chan­dler Repub­li­can, said he is aware of the ESA dis­cus­sions but not “privy” to the de­tails.

Yar­brough said, how­ever, it was his un­der­stand­ing that some have dis­cussed link­ing changes to the ESA ex­pan­sion to teacher pay. Re­gard­less, Yar­brough said, “teacher raises are go­ing to be a big, big deal. I don’t know that those are go­ing to be linked in any fashion.”

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