Arizona’s first-in-the-nation universal school choice program just hit a major milestone, and it is poised for more successes in the months ahead under a Republican’s stewardship.
Last year, the Arizona Legislature expanded the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program to include all eligible K-12 students in the state. Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, was handed the keys to maintain the legislature’s intent for the program. However, Hoffman did not support the universal expansion of ESAs and according to sources, did not take advantage of all available resources afforded to her by the legislature to ensure the program’s positive developments on behalf of students already in – and yet to join – the system.
At the start of this year, new Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, became one of the few Republican statewide officeholders and assumed control of the ESA program, which is under the umbrella of the Arizona Department of Education. Per reports since the transition of power, his administration inherited significant problems with the program, and his staff has had to work around the clock to catch up with the outstanding issues and requests in addition to nurturing the program’s growth.
Recently, though, under Superintendent Horne’s watchful eyes, the program has seen more stability and success than ever before, culminating with a recent announcement from the office that there are now 50,000 students enrolled in the ESA program.
When asked to respond to the news of this milestone, Superintendent Horne told AZ Free News, “Students should not be trapped in schools that, in their parents’ judgement, do not meet the particular students’ needs. If the schools are afraid of losing students to private or charter schools, they will make a greater effort to please parents with good academic outcomes.”
This news spread quickly around the state and nation – with many advocates and elected officials chiming in to congratulate Arizona and Superintendent Horne.
Congressman Paul Gosar tweeted, “Arizona is leading the country in education reform; 7 of the top 10 charter schools are in AZ and now with ESA, every student has the choice to find the best school he or she wants.”
Steven Utroska, a Mississippi Director for the State Freedom Caucus Network, wrote, “This is amazing. Could you imagine if 50k students in MS could leave failing government schools and actually get a quality education? It would revolutionize our state, but too many MS politicians would rather pander to the system than provide for the student.”
Jason Bedrick, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, responded, “This is why Arizona is #1 for education choice!”
Despite the good news about enrollment numbers with the program, Superintendent Horne and legislative Republicans have their work cut out for them in the months ahead. Democrat Governor Katie Hobbs and legislative Democrats are seeking to defund and undermine the universal ESA program, eliminating school choice for tens of thousands of Arizona students whose families have elected to participate in the historic opportunity to control their children’s education.
Daniel Stefanski is a reporter for AZ Free News. You can send him news tips using this link.
A popular and effective program to improve Arizona schools found itself on the wrong side of Democrat Governor Katie Hobbs’ widescale efforts to claw back earmarked funds by her predecessor, but Arizona Republicans are raising awareness and taking corrective action.
Last week, the Arizona Senate Education Committee heard a presentation from Dan Parris of Project Momentum. Parris told the committee that Project Momentum Arizona “was made possible through a unique public/private partnership initiated under former Governor Doug Ducey in 2015,” and that its goals include “increasing student achievement in mathematics and English Language Arts at a rate higher than that of the state and raising performance-based school letter grades.”
According to Parris, “all participating districts (in Project Momentum) have made objective improvements in student achievement outcomes as measurable by the state assessments in English Language Arts and mathematics. Performance growth rates across the project have been two to three times greater than that of the State.” For example, “results from the 2021-2022 school year show the Project supported seven schools with a D or F State rating for performance; and after one year under Project Momentum Arizona, all seven schools earned an A or B rating in the State.”
Parris informed Senators during his presentation that “on February 14, Project Momentum Arizona received notice that ‘the State has determined that the Agreement is not compliant with applicable Arizona law and is, therefore, invalid. Please immediately stop any and all efforts undertaken pursuant to the Agreement.’” This coincides with Governor Hobbs’ February decision to invalidate 19 grants totaling $210 million from former Governor Doug Ducey at the end of his final term as Arizona’s chief executive. In answer to a question from Senate Education Chairman Ken Bennett, Parris said that this project required around $6 million for the fiscal year to accomplish its designs.
The presentation also revealed that “on March 7, districts participating in Project Momentum Arizona received email notice from the Governor’s Office of Grants and Federal Resources that existing grant awards, contingent upon funding, would be continued until August 31. This statement is in compliance with the current binding governing agreements for this school year. Furthermore, participating districts were informed that ‘The Governor’s Office is finalizing a competitive solicitation that will address similar activities as allowed by the U.S. Treasury’s Final Rule for ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. These include remedying student learning loss through provision of professional development and support for teachers and paraprofessionals. Districts will be made aware of this competitive solicitation, application procedures, and the award process in the coming weeks.’”
At the end of the presentation and time for questions, Chairman Bennett reflected on his previous experience in the Senate with then-Governor Janet Napolitano, stating that “one of the things that we are quickly learning – both in the governor’s office and with the legislature – is how to work in a shared government situation.” He hoped that resolving the stoppage in funds to Project Momentum is “one of those things that we ought to work out because it is really helping students in Arizona.”
Earlier this month, the Governor’s Office announced a “redesigned grant opportunity that will designate $100 million for schools and local education agencies in Arizona to address COVID-19 recovery and mitigation efforts.” Additional grant solicitations would follow for another $87.5 million, according to the release.
One prominent Arizona Republican isn’t waiting for Hobbs to correct her funding cut for Project Momentum. The Arizona Department of Education, led by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne released the following statement Saturday morning, announcing that Project Momentum would soon be receiving funds to resume its worthy operations: “Since its inception, Project Momentum has achieved incredible outcomes, and we were saddened to see its funding cut. Nevertheless, ADE is committed to Project Momentum’s work and is now announcing that it will step up with funds to both facilitate its uninterrupted service and expand to an additional 24 schools.”
Daniel Stefanski is a reporter for AZ Free News. You can send him news tips using this link.
A Tucson school board says it won’t review its secretive policy allowing males who claim to be transgender into girls’ locker rooms and restrooms.
The Catalina Foothills School District (CFSD) told parents that it wouldn’t reconsider their unwritten policy on boys who claim to be transgender — a policy which also doesn’t require parents to be notified when males use their daughters’ locker rooms and restrooms, and directs girls to use another facility if they’re upset that males use female-designated private spaces. The policy has reportedly been in place for at least a decade.
Eileen Jackson, president of the CFDS governing board, informed one parent, Bart Pemberton, in a February email obtained by Daily Caller News Foundation that students uncomfortable with their policy may request an accommodation.
“Similarly, any student who is uncomfortable sharing multiple-occupancy facilities with others has the ability to request an accommodation,” Jackson said. “[O]ur administrators do not require any student to be singled out or isolated based on any of the protected statuses identified in our policy.”
Jackson told Pemberton in a follow-up email that the governing board wouldn’t review the matter and had no interest in doing so. Jackson added that she fully supported the policy.
“By not requesting this item be added to a future agenda, I am expressing my full support of the policy and our administrators’ implementation of this policy in our schools,” said Jackson.
In response to online criticism, CFSD pointed back to its 2015 governing board decision to expand its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity, as justification of its unwritten policy on males in girls’ restrooms and locker rooms.
“This policy guides administrators in their daily decisions that arise in the operation of our schools. Principals operate well within the directive of the Board’s established policy,” stated CFSD. “There is no plan to revise the board policy to exclude the language referencing gender identity or expression. Board members have indicated their full support of the current policy and our administrators’ implementation of this policy in our schools.”
CFSD’s governing board policy came from the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), which also hosts the policy on its platform. The latest version of this policy was adopted in June 2021.
ASBA recently fought against the advancement of legislation intended to remove sexualized books from K-12 classrooms.
Chris Kotterman, representing ASBA, claimed that the legislation was an “unprecedented state control of curriculum.” Kotterman also issued a veiled warning that the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) wouldn’t always be run by a Republican individual, as it is currently, indicating that the legislation’s framework for creating prohibited books list would be weaponized against those advocating to remove sexualized content.
CFSD also offers resources to students concerning gender identity and expression, referring students to the It Gets Better Project, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Southern Arizona Gender Alliance (SAGA), and Gender Affirming Healthcare.
These organizations listed by CFSD offer minors everything from counseling to information on medical treatments for gender identity and expression.
“Gender affirming healthcare can include therapy to address feelings of gender dysphoria, as well as medical treatments that help individuals achieve physical characteristics that better align with their gender identity,” stated CFSD.
Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ), a teachers union activist group, falsely claimed that public schools don’t discriminate.
SOSAZ claimed that the state’s universal school choice program was “taxpayer-funded hate” targeting LGBTQ+ children and families. They then claimed that public schools are accepting of all students.
“Public schools accept ALL students, which is why public funds belong in public schools,” stated SOSAZ.
Former Senate President Karen Fann responded to SOSAZ with a reminder that public schools do discriminate against Christians. Fann was likely alluding to the controversy with Washington Elementary School District (WESD), in which governing board member Tamillia Valenzuela — a self-identified neurodivergent queer furry — led a crusade to purge Christians from WESD.
“Wrong but we do know some public schools don’t like Christian teachers,” wrote Fann.
Valenzuela said during a board meeting last month that Arizona Christian University (ACU) didn’t align with WESD priorities because of their Christian beliefs. As a result, WESD terminated its contract with ACU to have university students complete their teaching and practical coursework at one of WESD’s campuses.
After the board voted to end its contract with ACU, Valenzuela published a celebratory post.
“I am so happy to announce that our board unanimously decided to no longer continue the partnership with Arizona Christian University,” said Valenzuela. “Thank you to our community members who made their voices heard.”
SOSAZ responded to Fann by condemning Christian schools who don’t enroll students that advocate for or practice sinful lifestyles such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, incest, pornography, and transgenderism. SOSAZ specifically highlighted Dream City Christian School, launched through Turning Point Academy Association and Valley Christian Schools.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sued WESD last week for its contract cancellation with ACU, alleging unconstitutional religious discrimination. ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman asserted that WESD was forcing ACU to choose between its religious beliefs and career opportunities for its students.
“Washington Elementary School District officials are causing irreparable harm to ACU every day they force it to choose between its religious beliefs and partnering with the area’s public schools,” said Cortman.
During last Thursday’s board meeting, Valenzuela claimed that those opposed to her crusade against Christians were actually bullying LGBTQ+ students. Valenzuela also claimed that sexuality exploration fulfilled one’s humanity, and that true Christianity accepted sin.
“There is a difference between acceptance and tolerance, and members of our society have been merely accepted, merely tolerated for their existence. We have watched as our children have been bullied for having autonomy,” said Valenzuela. “Know what Christ’s teachings were: it was love, it was acceptance. It was not cursing people out on Facebook and Twitter, it was not spreading misinformation.”
Valenzuela was also responsible for having all board members put their preferred pronouns — in English and Spanish — underneath their names on the dais. On her board member Facebook page, Valenzuela advocated for GLSEN: the organization attempting to sexualize minors.
On Wednesday, the state’s teachers union protested against the Arizona Department of Education’s newly-launched hotline for parents to report inappropriate class materials.
The Arizona Education Association (AEA) had educators and activists march around the state capitol and ADE building, holding signs and chanting. Some signs read, “Stand with Educators,” and “Stop the Attacks.”
AEA also issued a letter on Wednesday to ADE Superintendent Tom Horne. The activists delivered a copy of the letter to the ADE office following a short speech outside the building. The AEA characterized the hotline as another political game.
The body of the letter is reproduced below:
Consider this an open invitation to visit Arizona schools and meet with educators. Come see for yourself the hard work, expertise and passion that go into each day. The constant attacks, along with low wages and underfunded classrooms, are causing far too many of our colleagues to leave the profession and the state. Our students and our schools deserve better. Take down the ‘hotline.’ Stop the attacks and stand with us.
Horne toldFox News on Wednesday that he was aware of the hotline’s unpopularity with certain groups, and criticized the teachers that participated in the protest. The superintendent implied that those teachers protesting were opposed to transparency and accountability.
“I served 24 years on a school board, and our rule was anybody could come in and watch the teaching, and the teachers never complained because they were proud of what they were doing, so those who are protesting, maybe they are not so proud of what they’re doing,” said Horne.
ADE launched the hotline last Tuesday. The department clarified in a corresponding press release what qualified as inappropriate school lessons: those focused on race or ethnicity, rather than individuals or merit; promoting gender ideology; social-emotional learning (SEL); or sexual content. ADE cited our reporting as an example of those committed to teaching inappropriate materials, in which AZ Free News documented over 200 educators who signed onto a statement proclaiming that they would teach outlawed materials like Critical Race Theory (CRT) even if banned.
ADE stated that the hotline represented their administration’s commitment to transparency and empowering parents.
Under former Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, ADE’s commitment to transparency looked slightly different. As AZ Free News reported in January, the former administration neglected the state’s school choice program: it had less than one-third of the staff designed to run the program and nearly 171,600 unfulfilled expense requests, despite receiving millions in additional funding for hiring and operation expansions.
AEA President Marisol Garcia claimed that the hotline would invite harassment of educators, and allow for accusations to be vulnerable to open records requests.
“Inviting the harassment of educators, without due process at their local level, with the ability of these ‘accusations’ to be FOIA’d?” asked Garcia. “As if nothing bad is going to happen here?”
Teachers union members and supporters filled the Capitol following the march.
Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes advocates for keeping porn-laden books in K-12 classrooms.
Fontes claimed that those opposed to sexually explicit content in classrooms were insecure and that the concept was “anti-American.”
“If you’re so insecure in your beliefs that you think you have to ban books, perhaps you should revisit the actual strength of your ideas and values,” tweeted Fontes. “Banning books is anti-American.”
Fontes remarks were indirectly aimed at SB1700, which requires the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) to create and upkeep a list of banned schoolbooks posted to their website and authorize parents to submit for inclusion on the ADE banned book list any books containing lewd, sexual, gender fluidity, gender pronouns, grooming, or pedophilia normalization content.
State Sen. Justine Wadsack (R-LD17), the bill sponsor, accused Fontes of not reading the bill.
“SB1700 doesn’t ‘ban books,’” tweeted Wadsack. “It protects the innocent hearts and minds of children from indoctrinated porn being taught in their public government schools. Stop sexualizing children. Parents have had enough!”
The Senate passed SB1700 last Thursday without vocal opposition from Democrats. However, Democrats argued during the Senate Education Committee that State Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales (D-LD20) claimed that the bill would prevent children from learning about basic anatomy. Wadsack dismissed that claim, noting that the focus of the bill was to keep lewd content out of schools.
Elijah Watson — an activist with Civic Engagement Beyond Voting, and former activist with the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Arizona Democratic Party — claimed that the bill’s aim to ban porn was a “slippery slope” to censorship of great literary classics like “Of Mice and Men.” Watson said that the bill would ultimately prevent “tough but necessary discussions.”
Lisa Fink, president for Protect Arizona Children Coalition, testified that multiple books that would likely be subject to the prohibited books list included depictions of both children and adults in sex acts. One book highlighted by Fink, “Beyond Magenta,” depicts a six-year-old enjoying oral sex.
“Alarmingly, there is no immediate clarification for these pictures that this is illegal and damaging behavior,” stated Fink. “The book displays graphic language, violent sex, and graphic depictions of oral sex committed by children.”
Chris Kotterman representing the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) claimed that this was “unprecedented state control of curriculum.” Kotterman issued a veiled warning that the ADE wouldn’t always be run by a Republican individual, indicating that the prohibited books list would be weaponized against those advocating against sexualized content.
A group of transgender activists argued in opposition to the bill.
Erica Keppler, a transgender individual, claimed that gender fluidity is a “natural phenomenon.” Keppler claimed that any book using any pronouns, even in their correct usage, would be subject to the bill’s ban. Austin Davidson, another transgender individual, said that books affirming the lifestyles of fellow transgender individuals were necessary.
Alicia Messing, who signed a pledge to teach Critical Race Theory regardless of law or parental consent, said that teachers should dictate what students learn, not parents. Messing’s remarks made national headlines.
“We all have advanced degrees. What do the parents have? Are we vetting the backgrounds of our parents? Are we allowing the parents to choose the curriculum and the books that our children are going to read? I think that is a mistake,” said Messing.
It’s unlikely that any legislation of this nature — wholeheartedly supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats — will become law. Gov. Katie Hobbs has engaged in a veto streak against Republican-led legislation.