By Terri Jo Neff
Many attendees at Monday’s “Unification Rally” outside the Arizona State Capitol held signs which read “Unity – Protect and Educate Our Children” while speakers talked about bringing together law enforcement officials and religious leaders to build better relationships between peace officers and minorities.
The event also served as a show of support for Sen. Paul Boyer’s pending Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) legislation which supporters say will bring an end to the school to prison pipeline by expanding Arizona’s student funding program to an additional 470,000 children between preschool and grade 12.
An ESA allows an eligible child to receive credit for a large amount of the government education funding that would have been paid to the student’s public or charter school. Those funds can then be used toward private school expenses, including tuition, counseling, tuition, and other necessary costs.
SB1452 cleared the state Senate back in mid-February on a 16 to 14 party line vote, but has been stalled in the House after being amended in March by the Ways & Means Committee. Monday’s rally about the importance of educational options for parents who want additional educational options for their children highlighted Boyer’s ESA legislation.
Less than 10,000 students currently utilize ESAs, but speakers at the rally believe expanding eligibility criteria will allow nearly 726,000 children to have the option to receive an ESA. Among SB1452’s supporters are the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research, AZ Families for Home Education, and the American Federations of Children.
Currently there are 256,000 students eligible for the ESA program based on one of eight criteria, such as children with disabilities, children with a parent on active duty in the Armed Forces or whose parent was killed in the line of duty, children who are wards of the court with a permanent guardian, and children attending schools or school districts with a “D” or “F” rating.
According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC), Boyer’s bill as amended by the House would expand eligibility to children who qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch program, as well as about 63,000 students who are the children of veterans. That would make approx. 726,000 preschool to grade 12 students eligible for ESAs under at least one of the criteria.
The JLBC estimates the participation rate of the newly eligible students at around four percent, which would boost ESA enrollment by 1,926 students in Fiscal Year 2022, 3,877 in FY 2023, and 5,982 in FY 2024. Based on that increased participation, the Arizona Department of Education expenses would increase by $1.7 million, $3.6 million, and $6.4 million in those years, respectively.
However, JLBC noted the overall effect on the General Fund would be annual savings of $7.1 million to $9.4 million during the same three-year period. Those savings do not include estimated increases in annual administrative expenses of $2.2 million to $4 million.
Boyer’s bill has not been placed on a House agenda for a Third Reading as of press time.