Save Our Schools initiative would limit ESA expansion, require return of unused voucher money - AZEdNews
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Save Our Schools initiative would limit ESA expansion, require return of unused voucher money

Dawn Penich-Thacker Checks Petitions For The Save Our Schools Act Initiative On Wednesday, February 26, 2020. Photo By Morgan Willis/AZEdNews

Save Our Schools Arizona political action committee filed an initiative today with the Arizona Secretary of State that would limit Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion and require unused voucher money to be returned each year.

Right now, the ESA program provides $110 million per year in public K-12 education funding to pay for private school education and personal educational expenses for 7,000 Arizona students through debit card or wire transfer of funds to their parents. About 60 percent of students with ESAs, also called vouchers, have disabilities or special needs.

The initiative “will bring some much-needed reform to the ESA program,” said Raquel Mamani, chair of the Save Our Schools Arizona political action committee and a former special education teacher. “What we would like to do is cap it, make sure that it serves the students that it was meant to serve, which is special ed students – it gives them priority – and it gives the program a much-needed transparency of how the money is being spent.”

Volunteers must gather 237,645 signatures by July 2, 2020, to get the Save Our Schools Act initiative before voters on the general election ballot in November 2020.

Video by Morgan Willis/AZEdNews: Save Our Schools Arizona

The Save Our Schools Act initiative would also limit the size of the ESA program to 1 percent of the total Arizona student population, give priority access for ESAs to students with disabilities, and require that all private schools, tutors and aides paid with ESA voucher funds be located in Arizona.

“The act is the first in the nation of its kind. It will allow voters to once and for all to protect public education,” said Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, a fifth-grade teacher and a mother.

The initiative is not going to knock anybody off the ESA program that is currently part of it, Mamani said.

“We want to make sure that people know that this will help kids on the Native American reservations. It will help people in under-served communities, which is what the program was initially meant to do,” Mamani said.

Video by Morgan Willis/AZEdNews: Students & a teacher at Save Our Schools Arizona’s Feb. 26 kick-off event

Proposed changes for unused ESA funds

The current law allows ESA voucher recipients to roll over all unspent funds year after year with some recipients maintaining balances of more than $100,000, to use the state’s K-12 public education funds to pay for personal college expenses after the ESA student has graduated from high school up to age 22, and to transfer state funds to their children’s personal college savings accounts – known as 529 accounts or Coverdell accounts.

The Save Our Schools Act would change that by preventing the transfer of state funds to personal banking accounts, establishing the Taxpayer Protection Fund to pay for increased oversight, customer service and improved administration of ESA voucher funds, requiring that any ESA voucher funds not used by June 30 each year be returned to the Taxpayer Protection Fund and transferring those excess funds to the Extraordinary Special Needs Fund, which has been underfunded for years and serves the more than 100,000 students with disabilities in Arizona’s public schools.  

Video by Morgan Willis/AZEdNews: SOS Arizona volunteers at Feb. 26 kick-off event

“The Save Our Schools Act is so important, because it does two things. It protects public education and our already scarce funding, and it reforms the current private school voucher program, making it for the first time a narrow and accountable program for kids with special needs,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, co-founder and spokesperson for Save Our Schools Arizona.

“As we know, Arizona’s classrooms are in crisis and so many groups are working so hard to fund our schools and increase that funding, but unfortunately it’s kind of like a bucket and all of these voucher programs are drilling holes in the bottom,” Lewis said.

This session, lawmakers have sponsored legislation that would send voucher money out of state.

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Volunteers from around the state discuss the Save Our Schools Act initiative on Feb. 26, 2020 in Phoenix. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

Senate Bill 1224 would allow students on an Indian reservation in Arizona to send ESA students to a school within two miles of the border of an adjacent state, while House Bill 2898 would allow families in Colorado City, Ariz., to send students to a private school across the border in Utah.

The Save Our Schools Act initiative “makes sure that the money stays in Arizona for Arizona students,” Mamani said.

Efforts to limit voucher expansion

Two years ago, voters rejected voucher expansion with Prop. 305 sponsored by Save Our Schools Arizona.

Since then lawmakers have been bringing back more legislation to expand ESAs, Penich-Thacker said.

“We’ve been showing up and trying to testify, and it’s clear that they are not listening,” Penich-Thacker said. “We’ve been showing up and trying to testify, and it’s clear that they are not listening to voters, to their own constituents.”

If lawmakers won’t “listen to us when we come to the capitol, when we write our e-mails, when we place our calls, then you’ll have to listen to us when we put it on the ballot,” Penich-Thacker said.

“This act asks voters to tell lawmakers  – once and for all – we are not doing voucher expansion anymore,” Lewis said.

“We are prioritizing public education. We’re focusing on the 95 percent of our students who attend public schools,” Lewis said.

This is Arizona’s opportunity to stop the growth of vouchers once and for all, said the Friends of ASBA in a press release.

“The people of our state have told policymakers time after time that public money must stay in our public schools, not be diverted from the state’s general fund to unaccountable private and religious schools,” said Friends of ASBA, a private, nonprofit organization committed to filling the need for trusted information on state-level K-12 education issues.

“Save our Schools Arizona – and the hundreds of individuals from throughout Arizona who make it strong – harnessed this will of the voters at the polls in 2018 with Prop. 305, a resounding 2:1 victory against vouchers. State leaders should have taken notice and honored this outcome by not proposing additional expansion of vouchers. They didn’t and haven’t,” Friends of ASBA said.

“That is why, today, The Friends of ASBA applauds SOS AZ again for their relentless commitment to and advocacy for Arizona’s students and families and their determination to let the voice of the voters be heard again this November to end growth of vouchers for good.”

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Dawn Penich-Thacker checks petitions for the Save Our Schools Act initiative on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. Photo by Morgan Willis/AZEdNews