GOP mulls plan to get vouchers off Nov. ballot
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.”