Legislators vote to expand vouchers & require special education cost study - AZEdNews
Sections    Tuesday March 28th, 2023

Legislators vote to expand vouchers & require special education cost study

Arizona State University Students Walk Down Palm Walk On The Tempe Campus On The First Day Of Class Aug. 16. Photo By Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

The Senate Education Committee voted to expand eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, also known as vouchers that pay for private school education with public taxpayer money, as well as require the Arizona Department of Education to do a special education cost study every four years during their meeting that started at 2 p.m. today.

Before discussion on bills began, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman delivered her State of Education address to the Senate Education Committee.

Raising spending cap focus of Supt’s speech

Supt. Hoffman asked Legislators to raise the aggregate expenditure limit before March 1, 2022, so Arizona public school districts statewide do not have to cut nearly $1.2 billion from their budgets for this school year.

Such deep cuts could lead to teacher and staff furloughs, ending student programs and possibly cutting the school year short for lack of access to already allocated funds to pay for school operations and maintenance.

“You have 21 calendar days to prevent students and families from waking up to the consequences of political indifference – and failing to act will harm students and families,” said Supt. Hoffman. “The money is already in district bank accounts, you are not adding new money or raising taxes – just letting them spend all the money you budgeted to them last year. There is no other choice but to suspend and repeal the cap.” 

“Because of legislative inaction, our districts are facing a school closure ticking time bomb – and it is too important to focus on anything else today but the dire budget cuts facing our district schools,” Supt. Hoffman said in her 2022 State of Education speech to the Arizona Senate.

“We all agree that we must do everything possible to keep our schools open. But the biggest threat of widespread school closures comes not from the virus, but a school finance relic from 1980, the aggregate expenditure limit,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“In twenty-one days, public district schools in every county will face enormous and devastating budget cuts if you fail to diffuse the ticking timebomb that will force them to close,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“Without the immediate passage of Senator Marsh’s SCR 1022, or Representative Pawlik’s HCR 2012, district schools will be forced to cut 16% from their budgets – legally unable to spend over a billion dollars that you have already allocated to them,” Supt. Hoffman said. “Unfortunately, neither of these bills have been assigned to a committee or received a hearing.”

“For educators and school staff across the state, a 16% reduction in budgets will mean layoffs amid the already crisis-level teacher shortage,” Supt. Hoffman said. “It will mean furloughed bus drivers who may never return to their jobs if they are let go now. For students and their parents and guardians, these cuts will mean losing access to academic programs, extracurriculars, high-quality teachers, and even school closures.”

“In short, schools will not be able to maintain their current day-to-day operations without action by this body. Let me be perfectly clear: inaction is not an option and it’s appalling that this wasn’t the first issue addressed when the session started a month ago,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“These are unprecedented cuts, worse than those made during the great recession – and they will have a devastating effect on the many Arizona students and families that are served by district schools. Families that do not have time for political games or brinksmanship on this issue,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“Our students can do math — whether or not they are wearing masks. And they are tired of the Legislature playing games with their future, which is exactly what will happen if these cuts go through,” Supt. Hoffman said.

Special education audit report & cost study

The Senate Education Committee unanimously gave a due pass recommendation to Senate Bill 1519, sponsored by Minority Whip Sen. Martín Quezada and co-sponsors Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales and Sen. Raquel Terán, that would require the Arizona Department of Education to conduct program and fiscal audits of selected school district special education programs to determine compliance with laws and regulations and the appropriate placement of students in special education programs and report on their findings by Feb. 3 each year.

Under Senate Bill 1519, if the AZ Dept. of Education determines that a student has been inappropriately placed in special education then the school district’s weighted student count for educational support services for students in Group B will be recomputed and the district’s funding will be adjusted.

Also as part of Senate Bill 1519, the AZ Dept. of Education will request each year a separate line item appropriation for program and fiscal audits of special education programs in the budget estimate school districts’ submit.

In addition, Senate Bill 1519 would require the AZ Dept. of Education will complete a cost study of providing special education programs for students by Dec. 1 2022 and every two years afterwards. A proposed amendment by Sen. Christine Marsh was also approved that would change the date of the first report to June 30, 2023 and require a cost study report done every four years afterwards.

Aaron Wonders, deputy director of legislative affairs for the Arizona Department of Education, said the last special education cost study was conducted in 2007.

The the study looked at “the special education services provided and the state dollars that were allocated in the state education formula against the costs that are incurred for each of those different disability categories,” Wonders said.

The study also looked at some of the other entities engages in the special education world, Wonders said.

“Over the past year, we’ve begun to do this anew and we are trying to expand the scope of what the study is looking at,” Wonders said.

“It’s more of a holistic picture for Legislators, for policymakers of what special education funding is and how those expenditures are changing truly over about the past 15 years. We’re trying to do a deeper dive,” Wonders said.

“We’re also trying to look at different things like programmic changes like evaluate the cost-effectiveness of various programs that schools, school districts and charters are using across the state for education services,” Wonders said.

“We’re excited to present this work to the Legislature in coming years,” Wonders said.

Sen. Marsh’s amendment aligns the work that’s going on now in this initial year and “as we look on into future years to ensure the resources that are necessary to do this in-depth cost study,” Wonders said.

Sen. Theresa Hatathlie asked if public schools, charters and private schools would be included in the special education cost study.

“We’re trying to get a representative sample of what’s happening in public education, and both charters and districts are involved in that sample,” Wonders said.

“We’re trying to get representation across all 15 counties to ensure that we’re getting an accurate look at these costs and projecting that out to the entire population,” Wonders said.

“We’re also trying to include some information on the state education program and get at the costs associated with things like evaluations for districts that have to go out to have third parties to do an evaluation,” Wonders said.

Private schools would not be included in the cost study, but could be looked at through the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, Wonders said.

“I’m glad that the students who are also enrolled in the ESA programs will also be included in this study, if I understood correctly,” Sen. Hatathlie said.

“We’re trying to encapsulate that as a portion. That piece is looking at the total amount of costs through the ESA program for special education. We cannot do a programmatic analysis of what private schools are doing for special education,” Wonders said.

In closing comments, Sen. Quezada said, “I think this bill will give us some valuable information that we can use as we move forward in the future with our special education students.”

Lawmakers consider bills to expand vouchers

Lawmakers will also be discussing several voucher or Empowerment Scholarship Account bills during the Senate Education Committee meeting today.

Senate Bill 1657, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chair Paul Boyer and co-sponsors Majority Leader Sen. Rick Gray, Sen. Sine Kerr, Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Sen. T.J. Shope, would expand the eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts – also known as vouchers to pay for private education with public taxpayer money – to children of veterans, first responders, and health care workers, students from  low-income families – including students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch or whose families use SNAP or TANF, children who live within the attendance boundaries of a school with community eligibility for free and reduced price lunch, students who live within the boundary of a district that requested School Finance Board funds for new construction and students who were identified as having a disability by a public school system in another state.

In addition, SB 1657 would also require the Arizona Dept. of Education to transfer amounts from the classroom site fund to the students ESA for attending a private school via the Arizona Treasurer.

SB 1657 also increases the maximum aggregate total for Student Tuition Organization scholarships, eliminates the cap on maximum scholarship amount, and more.

The bill is similar to a measure discussed during last legislative session to expand access to ESAs, Senate Education Chair Boyer said.

Matt Beienberg, director of educational policy for The Goldwater Institute, said “The provisions in this bill would provide a lifeline for students not being served by the status quo.”

Sen. Theresa Hatathlie said in many of the areas she serves on the Navajo Nation there are no private school options and internet access for online learning is not reliable.

“In many of my communities, I would say that a large majority of our families are hard working families meaning they have an 8 to 5 job. If you’re proposed home schooling and tutors to teach those kids the only option may be to hire those public school teachers who are finding themselves without jobs,” Sen. Hatathlie said.

“We constantly have that discussion of underserved rural low-income families and many of those families as described fall within my legislative district and the reservations,” Sen. Hatathlie said. “How would families in the Havasupai district down in the Grand Canyon do that?”

How would that $7,000 for an ESA work for these families where it’s not a survival, or a living wage? Sen. Hatathlie asked.

Sen. Hatathlie asked how many additional students would be projected to use ESA’s, and Chair Boyer said about 2,500 more students than the current 10,000 students using ESAs.

Sen. Christine Marsh said, “This also includes seven brand new categories that are in no way linked to poverty.”

That includes school districts that are growing and need funds from the School Facilities Board, and students that attend a school district that outspend Arizona’s public universities.

“This bill is far more expansive and this is going to soon include every school district in the state with that university comparison,” Sen. Marsh said. “This is nothing like last year’s bill, it’s far broader it brings in STOs and the Classroom Site fund.”

There’s 126 school districts with 280,000 students that spend more than the university limit, Sen. Gonzales said.

Joe Bia Jr., a parent and board member for Kayenta Unified School District on the Navajo Nation.

Many community members are “rattled and scared” about how this bill will impact our schools, Bia said.

“Right now, the schools have Navajo-centric teaching,” Bia said. “This bill cuts into that framework and keeps our schools from being funded.”

“This is important for our rural, underserved community,” Bia said.

Ron Johnson with the Arizona Catholic Conference, which runs several private religious schools, said this bill “will help students attend schools that meet their needs.”

Jim Swanson, CEO of Kitchell, said he is opposed to the bill.

“Arizona already has an incredibly robust choice system for our students. On funding, I’m a supporter of the 90% of our students who attend public schools,” Swanson said.

“Instead of taking money out of our public schools, why not invest in a poverty weight to help our students,” Swanson said.

“For the will of the people, this issue was settled four years ago when the people vote down a massive expansion of ESAs,” Swanson said. “These private schools are not accountable to taxpayers.”

“It costs about 30% more to teach a child in poverty because the wraparound services these children need are essential,” Swanson said.

Sen. Gonzales asked Swanson why education is important to Arizona businesses.

“Education is the most important economic development tool we have in our state,” Swanson said.

Sen. Rick Gray asked how much does the Arizona Legislature need to pay per student to raise the quality of education. “All I ever get is more money, more money.” As a businessman, you don’t pour money into something that isn’t working, “we’re at $14,000 a student, but I don’t see our scores going up,” Sen. Gray said.

“I think we’re better off putting our money into a system that 93% of our students are in,” Swanson said.

Legacy Christian Center Pastor Drew Anderson said “I’m not asking for you guys to walk away from public schools,” but “I am asking you to let parents pick which school is right for their child.”

Nicky Indicavitch, a mother of five children attending schools in Yavapai County, said “My Arizona kids needs smaller class sizes, my second grader has more than 32 kids in that classroom.”

“You hold a lot of power here, if you wanted our student to counselor ratio to come down you could run that bill now,” Indicavitch said.

“Please move away from efforts to privatize our education system and start caring for it,” Indicavitch urged Legislators.

Raquel Mamani, a parent, teacher and greater Phoenix coordinator for Save our Schools Arizona, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying “vouchers don’t work for everyone.”

“It doesn’t work for a special education students who despite a fully loaded voucher is not accepted at these private schools,” Mamani said.

“Please respect the will of the voters and what we asked for in 2018,” when Arizona voters rejected ESA expansion by a 2-1 margin and reject this bill, Mamani said.

Beth Lewis, a teacher, parent and executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, spoke in support of the bill.

“This bill is a universal voucher expansion. It will drain hundreds of thousands of dollars from our public schools,” Lewis said. “I implore you do vote against it.”

Denise Viner, director of Padres Unidos, said the ESA program gives children an opportunity for a better education and parents should have that choice.

“Poverty ends with education,” Viner said.

Then, the Senate Education Committee gave SB 1657 a do pass recommendation with a vote of 5 ayes and 3 nays.

Senate Bill 1131, sponsored by Sen. Wendy Rogers, would expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, also known as vouchers to pay for private education with public taxpayer money to children of veterans, first responders – police officers, firefighters, volunteer firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians – and full-time health professionals who provide direct patient care.

Then, the Senate Education Committee voted against Senate Bill 1131 with a vote of 4 ayes and 4 nays.

Senate Bill 1707, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chair Paul Boyer, would let a student who received a grant under the COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit program prior to June 30, 2022 to be permanently eligible to receive an ESA.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s Executive Order created the program this summer to provide $7,000 grants to families whose students were in schools requiring masks or quarantining after an exposure, to allow them to school their child in another way.

The measure includes an emergency clause that would make the bill go into effect upon the Governor’s signature and would deny an initiative against it to be proposed for the ballot since the initiative would have already taken effect.

“I find this bill offensive, because it penalizes students and staff,” Sen. Marsh said. “We have so many kids in school facing very similar health consequences or going home to families with very similar health consequences.”

Senate Education Chair Boyer said he wanted to make sure parents did not have this educational opportunity “ripped away from them” during this time and that is why he sponsored this bill.

Then, the Senate Education Committee gave Senate Bill 1707 a do pass recommendation with a vote of 5 ayes and 3 nays.