Jun 7, 2022 - Politics

Arizona lawmakers discuss expanding school voucher-style program

Illustration of the Arizona State Capitol with lines radiating from it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A new deal to dramatically expand Arizona's voucher-style program for K-12 schools may be in the works.

What's happening: Republican House Majority Leader Ben Toma is making a late push to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to all students.

Context: Under the ESA program, parents who pull their children from public schools receive money from the state that they can use for private school tuition, tutoring, learning materials or other educational purposes.

  • Currently, the ESA program is only available to certain groups of students, like those with disabilities, anyone in a failing school, or Native Americans.
  • As of March 31, there were 11,775 students participating in the program, with scholarships ranging from $3,000 to over $30,000, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

The big picture: Toma wants to expand the program to make ESAs available to all students in Arizona.

  • "For me, universal means universal," he told Axios.

The other side: Support for ESAs has historically fallen along partisan lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.

Yes, but: Three House Republicans are hesitant to vote for any expansion plan.

  • GOP Reps. Joel John, Joanne Osborn and Michelle Udall have concerns about accountability and oversight of the program.
  • Expansion proposals in 2021 and earlier this year fell short due to their opposition.

Toma is negotiating with his holdout colleagues, and is hoping to strike a deal before the legislative session ends sometime this month.

What they're saying: John, Osborn and Udall left the door open to possibly support a plan, but none of them are there yet.

  • John told Axios he could support an ESA expansion plan, "If there were acceptable amounts of accountability or oversight."
  • Any ESA expansion plan must be "a win for education" and "a win for Arizona," Osborn told Axios. "It's got to be a win. That's all I’m saying. Can't say anything more."

Udall, who’s seeking the GOP nomination for superintendent of public instruction, said she hopes to reach an agreement, telling Axios, "For me, the holdups are accountability and means testing."

  • That refers to determining eligibility based on financial need. Udall said she either wants to limit expansion to low-income families or make scholarship amounts dependent on income.

Flashback: The last time the legislature approved a massive ESA expansion bill in 2018, opponents collected enough signatures for a citizen referendum. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

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