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Prop. 305: Should Arizona expand state’s school voucher program?

Proposition 305 asks voters to decide the future of school vouchers – whether they want to keep or repeal a major expansion of the program.

Gov. Doug Ducey in April 2017 signed a bill to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, but a group of parents, educators and advocates organized to put the issue before voters in the Nov. 6 election.

The ESA program allows parents and guardians to apply for vouchers that essentially use tax dollars to pay for private school tuition.

Right now, ESA vouches only are available to students with certain circumstances, such as those with special needs, in foster care or attending failing schools. About 3,500 children are in the program.

The bill to expand ESA opened the program to all Arizona students. So a “yes” vote on Prop. 305 supports that course, gradually increasing the availability of ESAs to all 1.1 million students in the state – with a cap of 30,000 students.

Victor Riches, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative-libertarian think tank in Phoenix, said school choice is an important part of the Arizona education system.

“The success of charter schools and open enrollment have demonstrated pretty clearly that there is real hunger for school choice in the state,” Riches said. “I don’t think there’s any mechanism that is better for individual students than having this ability to actually tailor an educational experience around their specific needs.”

Jenny Clark, a current ESA parent, said in an email more children should have access to an educational setting that best fits their learning needs because there is no one-size-fits-all solution  to education.

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However, opponents say the expansion will deprive public schools of money by routing it to private and religious schools. The grassroots group  Save Our Schools Arizona has taken on Ducey and the Legislature, gathering the signatures to refer the ESA expansion to voters. 

Arizona already ranks high for school choice, with such things as charter schools, public schools, open enrollment and the current ESA program, said Dawn Penich-Thacker, the group's co-founder and communications director.

The focus, she said, should instead be on adequately funding traditional public schools rather than "taking more money out of public education.”

Today, the ESA gives directly to parents 90 percent of the funding normally allocated to the child’s school district on their behalf. It's deposited via prepaid debit cards to cover private school tuition, homeschooling costs, educational materials and therapies.

That kind of ESA program needs transparency and accountability, Penich-Thacker said. 

Understaffing at the Arizona Department of Education means the state can't sufficiently oversee the program or track how the funds distributed through ESA program are used and Prop 305 does nothing to allocate more funds to handle the increase, she said.

“Even if there is a world where we can figure out a good voucher bill, Prop 305 isn’t it,” Penich-Thacker said.

Arizona's push toward increased school choice has not negatively affected the state’s public school funding. Proposition 301 and Proposition 123, which have increased funding for public schools, Riches said.

Riches said a report from the Arizona Office of the Auditor General showed the majority of the dollars distributed through the ESA program have been spent correctly. 

However, according to a report filed by the office in 2016 there were still steps the Department of Education needed to take to ensure funds were spent correctly once parents received them.

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Sarah Farrell/Special for Cronkite News

Dawn Penich-Thacker, communication director for Save Our Schools Arizona, organized the campaign to get Proposition 305 on the ballot. “Even if there is a world where we can figure out a good voucher bill, Prop 305 isn’t it,” she said.