Video: Legislators approve largest ESA expansion ever & school funding weights bills - AZEdNews
Sections    Tuesday March 28th, 2023

Video: Legislators approve largest ESA expansion ever & school funding weights bills

Rep. Ben Toma Discusses House Bill 2853, Which Would Expand The Reach Of Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts During The House Ways And Means Committee Meeting On June 15, 2022. Photo Courtesy Arizona Capitol Television

Arizona Legislators on the House Ways and Means Committee approved the largest expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, also known as vouchers, which provide public taxpayer dollars to pay for students’ private school education, and a school funding weights bill that will only be enacted if the ESA expansion bill is enacted.

The bill received a do pass recommendation with a vote of 6 ayes, 4 nays along party lines with Republicans voting for it and Democrats voting against it. The bill will next be heard in the full House, and if it receives a do pass recommendation, then in the Senate.

Arizona Capitol Television: House Ways and Means Committee meeting – 6/15/22 began shortly after 10:45 a.m.

House Bill 2853, sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Ben Toma, would expand Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in the 2022-2023 school year to any student who is eligible to enroll in any public school in the state, including a preschool program for students with disabilities, a kindergarten program, any student in grades 1 through 12 and any other student who otherwise does not qualify for an ESA, and students who attended a nonpublic school for pupils with disabilities in the prior year.

A little more than 11,775 students now use Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to attend private schools using public taxpayer dollars. The average amount students receive is $6,641 for the ESA.

House Bill 2853 comes just days before the June 30, 2022 deadline for the Arizona Legislature to approve a state budget, and after Arizona voters rejected ESA expansion in 2018.

“Arizona’s really been a leader in school choice for a long time, and I want to just start out by rejecting the premise that being pro school choice and pro parent choice is somehow being anti-public education, because that’s simply not true,” Rep. Toma said.

The bill also comes just months after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Hannah ruled that the voter-approved Invest in Education Act could not be enforced because the funds raised from Prop. 208 would have put the schools above the aggregate expenditure limit and permanently blocked the tax levy on high-earning Arizona taxpayers to fund public K-12 education.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein asked Rep. Toma what stakeholder process was used to develop this bill, and she said, “This discussion should be about using our tax dollars.”

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone in this room that we’ve been talking about expanding school choice this session. It’s been a hot topic,” Rep. Toma said.

Rep. Toma noted that many charter schools that did not have wait lists for students before COVID, do “post COVID and some are over a year long for certain grades, and that’s because parents wanted to exercise that choice, but practicality wasn’t there because availability wasn’t there. This is an opportunity for us to expand availability.”

“I met with all kinds of stakeholders during the entire session to get here, and this is the product,” Rep. Toma said.

House Bill 2853 would also allow ESA funds to be used for public transportation for the student including a commuter pass, computer hardware and devices to be used for an educational purpose including calculators, laptops, microscopes, telescopes and printers.

House Bill 2853 requires full-time students using an ESA in grades 3-12 to take any nationally standardized norm-references achievement examination or statewide assessment. It also requires schools that enroll 50 or more qualified students to make available to parents of enrolled or prospective students the aggregate test scores of all students enrolled in the school on any nationally standardized norm-references achievement examination, the statewide assessment, any reading and math assessment examination related to college or university admissions.

Related articles:
Judge rules voter approved Invest in Ed Act can’t be enforced, tax levy to fund education permanently blocked
Legislators vote to expand vouchers & require special education cost study
Legislators approve voucher expansion & hold school takeover bill
Videos: Parents, teachers, school leaders urge Legislators to vote against voucher expansion
Video: SB 1452 expands vouchers, diverts money for teacher pay
ESA expansion would cost state more money
Supt. Hoffman asks Legislators to release full ESA administration funding
What are Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts?
Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: Who qualifies, how money is spent
Academic accountability: How do ESAs measure up?
After six years, ESA program still vexed by financial accountability

Advocates turn in signatures to put tax cuts that impact education funding on ballot
Judge rejects preliminary injunction & claims in Prop. 208 lawsuit
Court ruling on the Prop. 208 Invest In Ed lawsuit
Judge rejects two claims in Prop. 208 lawsuit
School elections pass rate is lower than in past, but results are mixed
Questions about Prop. 208, school bond, override elections? Find answers here
Court ruling impacts Invest in Ed, Save Our Schools initiatives qualifying for ballot
New Invest in Ed initiative announced for 2020 ballot
Education advocates’ budget priorities for legislative session
Ruling removes Invest in Ed proposition from ballot

Beth Lewis, a parent, educator and executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said “After decades of funding cuts, the funding this body provides to Arizona public schools remains nearly last in the nation. It’s shameful. Our kids deserve better.”

“Here at the Capitol, all I hear is anti-public school rhetoric, anti-teacher rhetoric, it’s deployed time and time again to sell private school vouchers under the guise of choice. This is not choice. It is not the child’s choice, it is not the parent’s choice, it is the school’s choice. I cannot tell you how many parents have come to me and cried to me and said after choosing a voucher the school would not admit their child to find out that they were not going to be able to attend a private school, because it’s the school’s choice,” Lewis said.

“These private school vouchers are a grift by profit-seeking corportations and not with the vast majority of Arizonans who have said time and time again what they want,” Lewis said. “These vouchers are a scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy. They already cost Arizona over $400 million in taxpayer dollars every single year.”

Video: Legislators approve largest ESA expansion ever & school funding weights bills Screen-Shot-2022-06-15-at-11.06.01-AM
Beth Lewis speaks against the ESA bill during the House Ways and Means Committee Meeting on June 15, 2022. Photo courtesy Arizona Capitol Television

“Anyone who says this creates vouchers for poor kids is telling you a lie,” Lewis said. “Universal voucher expansion creates entitlements for the wealthy. In fact, the bill’s sponsors refused to pass ESA voucher expansion solely for poor children this year, because they said they couldn’t pass vouchers for well-off students because a sympathetic audience would be removed.”

“What the voucher pushers aren’t telling you is that this expansion removes priority for students with special needs. Why not expand vouchers for the poor, if the intent is to help the poor. Why not pass laws to ensure vouchers schools are not discriminating,” Lewis said before her time to comment was up.

Rep. Toma asked how the bill removes priorities for special needs students.

“The original program obviously prioritizes special education students. If everybody is eligible for a voucher, I think we know that there are many schools that will prioritize well off students instead of special education students,” Lewis said.

House Ways and Means Chair Shawnna Bolick asked, “You have evidence of this?”

“When universal vouchers were attempted to be passed in 2017, we know that the Arizona Department of Education was getting phone calls off the hook of schools that were wanting to convert to private status and would no longer be serving students with special needs,” Lewis said.

Rep. Amish Shah said, “All of the stuff that goes into paying the overhead, paying all the things to keep the lights on, keep the buildings open and all that stuff has to get paid by the per pupil funding, so to take that away has a very detrimental effect. I think that’s sort of the heart of this.”

Gilbert Public Schools Board Member Jill Humpherys also spoke against the expansion of ESAs.

“An ESA expansion would be more expensive than the money you give to public schools, because you’re giving them 90% of the public school amount plus the charter additional assistance, which to my understanding can run about $1,500 more per student,” Humpherys said. “Also, there’s no accountability for fiscal spending or student achievement.”

“Students lose their rights under IDEA at a private school. Our constitution says that we should not be giving money to private and parochial schools. I consider the vouchers a workaround of that,” Humpherys said.

Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, “My big question is why are we here to talk about this right now? We have serious concerns and issues that are happening in schools across Arizona. Particularly dealing with the fact that we have an exodus of Arizona educators who are leaving to neighboring states, so the question for me is why we’re discussing this first before anything else.”

“Right now, working families in Arizona really do want to have a conversation about public schools, but poll after poll, interaction after interaction, is about how we need to make sure that qualified, quality educators stay and give great instruction to the students that we are given in our classroom,” Garcia said.

“I did have one experience when a family was given a voucher in the Isaac School District. Folks showed up at their trailer door with coats, with vests on telling them you should leave your school we have a better school available for you. Well, as parents who want to do great for their students, they signed up for this. They didn’t understand all the intricacies, the legality or anything that was that. But they showed up at the school a couple hours later and I had to inform them that they needed to leave our public school and go to a different school,” Garcia said.

“They didn’t know where their private schools are, and by the way, there are none in the Isaac School District. There’s no transportation for them nor food for them. We are talking about students in extreme poverty. That student had straight As and is now in a higher ed university and has gone to public schools this entire time,” Garcia said.

Jeff Blake, superintendent of Phoenix Christian Preparatory School, which serves 55% of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch spoke in favor of the bill and said they embrace testing to ensure their students are making academic progress and they share the results with students’ parents.

Supt. Blake shared how a student who is blind graduated from their school recently.

“ESA funding allowed us to hire aides and support and coaches who enabled her to move on to a path of success,” Supt. Blake said.

Another student on an ESA played soccer while attending their school and is not attending community college, Supt. Blake said.

“We just graduated another student who is a significant beneficiary of ESA programs who is a significant autistic student who has one of the leads in our play ‘The Lion King’ this year, he performed in the Jazz band and he is now in the Engineering Program at Grand Canyon University.”

“Why should the taxpayers pay for every student to come to be able to come to your school,” asked Rep. Epstein.

“This program significantly gives parents the opportunity to make decisions in the best interest of their child, and we’re committed to do that,” Supt. Blake said.

Rep. Kelli Butler asked how students who receive an ESA will be able to pay for private school tuition, which is considerably more than the $6,000 to $7,000 amount of most student’s ESA.

“A wealthy family who can currently meet a $12,000 private school tuition can not currently use an ESA,” Rep. Butler said, and asked if they could now use ESAs under this bill.

Supt. Blake noted that state law does not allow families to stack ESA funding with additional funding from Student Tuition Organizations and that many families seek aid from STOS.

“96% of our students benefit in some fashion from the tax credit program or the ESA program. The student is more likely to receive more funding through the tax credit program, but this would open the door for a considerable number of other families who may consider it and then it would be out of pocket,” said Supt. Blake. “The school does offer internal scholarships that we raise through private donors that would help make up the difference and that’s important to us too.”

Jenny Clark, a mother of five children who use ESAs, spoke in support of the bill to expand ESA eligibility.

“I’m in support of this bill for many reasons. Our family has benefited from an ESA more than we ever could have imagined,” Clark said. “It’s allowed us to get wonderful therapy, dyslexia specific tutoring and curriculum that has helped our kids learn to read.”

“We used it to help our kids speech and occupational therapy and also tuition for one of our kids who needed to attend private school and needed something different,” Clark said. “It has benefited our special education qualifying children and our neurotypical children alike. It is truly a life-changing program for our family.”

“It’s because of our experience with ESA that we believe that every Arizona child deserves to have access to the same opportunity that our children have,” Clark said. “I know and work with so many families who would love to have access to this program, but they don’t presently qualify. This bill would open a door for every Arizona child to have the options that our family has had. All Arizona families deserve equitable access to a great education regardless of their income or ZIP code.”

“This bill also allows families to qualify with a private diagnosis. Getting a special education evaluation is a difficult, emotional and lengthy process and we know that more and more kids are qualifying for special education every single year,” Clark said.

Legacy Christian Center Senior Pastor Drew Anderson spoke in favor of the ESA expansion bill.

“Currently the State of Arizona has had multiple polls and poll, after poll, after poll have shown over 78% of Republicans, Democrats and Independents support expanding this program,” Pastor Anderson said.

“This is really not an opportunity for kids across the state, and if we knew how many private schools we had we’d know who could take advantage of this,” said Rep. Pamela Powers-Hannley.

“The state needs to know what our return on investment is, and I vote no,” said Rep. Powers-Hannley.

ESAs were rejected soundly by voters, and that should weigh on this discussion said Rep. Amish Shah as he voted against the bill.

Rep. Butler said, “The vast majority of voters have already said no to vouchers and we know this.”

“As lawmakers, it is our job to make sure every one of our tax dollars is used reponsibly,” Rep. Butler said as she voted against the bill.

“This bill drains dollars away from students in public schools,” Rep. Epstein said.

“The voters struck down an imperfect program. This is different,” Rep. Toma said.

“This is a chance for us to rally around more school choice,” said House Ways & Means Committee Chair Shawnna Bolick.

The bill received a do pass recommendation with a vote of 6 ayes, 4 nays along party lines.

K-12 school finance weights bills

House Bill 2854, sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Ben Toma, would add a 0.037 weight for students who meet the economic eligibility requirements established under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts for free- and reduced-price lunch to state K-12 education base support level per-pupil funding for public schools and also increase the weight for English Language Learners from 0.115 to 0.23, but only if House Bill 285 which expands ESAs is enacted.

House Bill 2854 would go into effect in July 2023.

House Bill 2854 would appropriate $42 million from the state general fund in fiscal year 2023-2024 to the Arizona Dept. of Education for basic state aid to fund the increase in the English Language Learners Group B weight, $100 million to fund free- and reduced-price lunch, $11.7 million for an ongoing increase in the per pupil charter additional assistance, $46.3 million to fund an ongoing increase in the per pupil district additional assistance, and $200 million for a onetime deposit in the Classroom Site Fund.

Rep. Epstein said the $200 million in this bill won’t even cover inflation.

“This is new funding for K-12,” Rep. Toma said. “This funding is above and beyond what’s included in the budget that most of you have seen.”

“This bill only becomes activated if the ESA bill is enacted in it’s entirety,” Rep. Toma said.

Darcy Mentone with Vail School District said their district is funded among the lowest in the state, but their parents have among the highest level of engagement in the state.

There are no private schools in the boundaries of the district, so parents who choose ESA’s drive their students to private schools in Tucson or other areas or go to online private schools.

“I know each of you has the best intentions and wants to do what is best for Arizona families,” Mentone said. “Please consider putting part of these funds in the base so that all school districts in Arizona can benefit from this.”

“We would ask that this money is added to the base. We would also respectfully ask this is not tied to ESAs,” Mentone said.

The House Ways & Means Committee gave House Bill 2854 a do pass recommendation with a vote of 6 ayes and 4 nays along party lines.