Arizona House committee proposes bill to revamp school funding and voucher expansion

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Republican leaders of Arizona House proposed legislation on June 14 that will dramatically revamp the state’s school funding formula, add about $200 million in new annual funding for K-12 schools, and create a universal voucher system for private schools.

Majority Republicans see the effort as the culmination of more than a decade of work to expand parents’ ability to bypass traditional district schools and autonomous charter schools and allow parents to use the public money to pay school fees in religious or private schools.

The measure passed the House committee by a 6-4 vote, meaning it is now heading to the full House.

But public school advocates slammed the proposal at a press conference held just before the House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on the proposal and eventually presented it to the full House. House in a 6 to 4 vote.

They argue that Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expansion just four years ago and that the state’s public schools remain woefully underfunded despite new spending approved by the Legislature and the Republican governor. Doug Ducey in recent years.

The current proposal calls for a one-time investment of $200 million in a fund that helps pay for school operations and teacher salaries. The $200 million is ongoing funding that will be split between schools with high rates of low-income students, to increase spending on English language learners, and a fund that increases funding for all traditional schools and chartered. This comes on top of new school spending already provided for in a currently stalled budget deal.

The proposals are set for a hearing at the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The complicated news school funding and voucher expansion bills were presented late Tuesday.

The Arizona constitution allows opponents of laws enacted by the Legislative Assembly and signed by the governor to block them by collecting the signatures of 5% of qualified voters. If they do, the measure is listed on the next general election ballot. The previous expansion was rejected by two-thirds of voters in the state.

The new voucher expansion proposal contains a poison pill designed to prevent this effort. It is tied to funding for new schools, $200 million in ongoing cash, and an additional $200 million in one-time money, and that funding will only be allocated if the voucher expansion is signed into law and goes into effect.

Parents and educators speak in a public forum

At a public forum at the state Capitol, parents and educators appeared before the Arizona Ways and Means Committee, arguing their views on the proposed universal voucher system for private schools. .

GOP Majority Leader Ben Toma is spearheading the proposal and says it’s different from school voucher legislation that was defeated in 2018.

“It’s not about private or public education, it’s about giving parents choice for their children,” Toma said. “The best choice they can make, that they and their family can make for the needs of this particular child.”

Lawmakers unanimously disagreed, with some taking issue with the state’s lack of ability to monitor testing and the progress of the voucher program.

“We don’t know if the students will actually learn anything,” said Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler of Paradise Valley. “We’re going to turn over thousands of our tax dollars and the state won’t see the test results to see if that money was well spent, if there’s student growth. It’s totally inexplicable.”

Democrats, united against the voucher bill, liked parts of the school funding proposal. The $200 million in ongoing cash provides additional funding to low-income schools called “opportunity weights” and increases funding for students learning English.

“We really need to (give) more funding for students who are in poverty and are getting free and reduced lunch,” Butler said. “So that’s a shocking inclusion in this bill and I’m glad to see it there.”

But she and other Democrats have criticized other parts of the school funding bill, including the $200 million in one-time cash and that while the voucher expansion will go into effect July 1, the new funding will not take effect until July 2023.

“Tying this to vouchers doesn’t make sense,” Tempe Democratic Rep. Mitzi Epstein said. “There is no relevant link in there except the political link.”

Beth Lewis, Executive Director of Save Our Arizona Schoolssaid a huge problem is a poison pill – a conditional enactment that says schools won’t get the new funding unless the voucher bill passes and comes into force.

“Here on Capitol Hill, all I hear is anti-public school rhetoric, anti-teacher rhetoric,” Lewis said. “It’s deployed over and over again under the guise of choice. It’s not choice. It’s not the child’s choice, it’s not the parent’s choice, it’s the school choice.

An electoral referendum, like the one his group obtained in the 2018 election, would jeopardize new school funding.

“As someone who exercised their constitutional right to a referendum, I think that’s pretty disgusting,” Lewis said. “And as a parent who wants this funding for their children, that’s really not OK.”

“Tying this to vouchers doesn’t make sense,” Tempe Democratic Rep. Mitzi Epstein said. “There is no relevant link in there except the political link.”

Toma defended tying the bills, noting that it is similar to normal budget negotiations and the related horse trade.

“In order to get my vote and many other Conservative votes on additional K-12 spending…we’re tying it to something else,” Toma said. “Overall, it ends up being something we can all support.”

The fate of the voucher expansion plan is uncertain, as Republicans only hold a one-vote majority in the House and Senate and there is at least one GOP member in both chambers who does not. has not pledged to support the measures. He has no Democratic support.

Republican Senator Paul Boyer said Wednesday he was considering the proposal but had concerns. And Rep. Michelle Udall said Tuesday she either wants more accountability than the limited testing currently in the plan or a lot more money for K-12 schools.

Finding money, for once, is not a problem. The state is sitting on an unprecedented surplus of more than $5.3 billion, even accounting for $1.7 billion in income tax cuts enacted by the Legislature against the United Democratic opposition. last year.

School funding isn’t the only issue for lawmakers

Breaking the impasse over school funding and voucher bills are just two of the main issues facing lawmakers in the final weeks of the session.

They must put a budget in place by June 30 or else a shutdown of state services will come into effect. And lawmakers have been stuck for more than two months without a deal, in part because a Senate Republican, Paul Boyer, is demanding huge new investment in K-12 schools before backing a budget deal.

He said on Tuesday that he was not informed of Toma’s bill package.

Boyer pushed for a “big deal” that would include much of the $900 million in voter-approved funding that Proposition 208 would have provided if the The Arizona Supreme Court did not declare it unconstitutional.. He has also been pushing since last year for a major expansion of the voucher program.

But some Senate Republicans have publicly opposed any additional school funding.

Udall said last week that she also wants a very big new investment in K-12 schools, “a pretty big chunk” of the $900 million Boyer wants.

The state is brimming with cash, sitting on an unprecedented surplus of more than $5.3 billion. That’s even $1.7 billion in income tax cuts enacted by the Legislature against the United Democratic Opposition last year.

The actual tax cuts had been put on hold because opponents collected enough signatures to block them until voters could approve or reject them in November. But the The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in April that voters cannot block them, although the court did not explain its reasoning and they are now in effect.

The current budget is $12.8 billion, and Republican House and Senate leaders have an agreement to spend $15.1 billion in the next fiscal year and add to current year spending as well. .

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