Arizona Republican senators send school-choice expansion to House

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Republicans in the Arizona Senate ushered through a significant expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program.

Senate Bill 1452 passed along party lines Monday. If enacted, it would expand the state’s program by allowing any student who lives in a Title I school, meaning schools that serve a high percentage of students from low-income families, to attend another school using state funds meant for their local district.

ESA currently is allowed only for low-income students in Title I districts. The Arizona Department of Education estimates the bill would allow up to 700,000 children to use ESAs. Students would receive a voucher for 90% of the funding that would have been sent to their schools to pay for education at the school of their choice.

Republicans have supported expanding the program, saying it gives parents without the financial means the chance to send their kids to a better school just as wealthier families would.

Democrats criticized the legislation, saying it would sap local districts of funding.

“The voucher money that follows a child to a private school takes money away from our kids that are already woefully underfunded,” said Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix.

Others called it a return to school segregation, drawing a sharp response from the bill’s sponsor.

“A family choosing for themselves any school that works best for their own child? That’s not segregation; that’s freedom,” Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said.

A previous expansion to the program was blocked by a ballot initiative in 2018.

“Senate Bill 1452 would make the vast majority of Arizona students eligible for private school vouchers while also decreasing accountability and transparency of these dollars – each one a tax dollar siphoned out of the public schools 95% of Arizona families choose,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, co-founder of Save Our Schools Arizona.

She said her organization would fight the expansion in the courtroom or at the ballot, if necessary.

The bill was amended to remove a direct payment from the student’s school district after the Senate Rules Committee found it would have required a higher vote total to pass.

It now awaits consideration by the Arizona House.

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