Celebratory Signing Ceremony For Expansion Of ESAs to All K-12 Arizona Students

Celebratory Signing Ceremony For Expansion Of ESAs to All K-12 Arizona Students

By Terri Jo Neff |

A pep rally type celebration was held Tuesday to help promote expansion of  Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) for all K-12 students in Arizona.

“Today, we celebrate the signing of the most expansive school choice legislation in recent memory,” Ducey said during a ceremonial signing of House Bill 2853 which provides about $7,000 in education credits for every Arizona student to attend the K-12 public, private or charter school of their choice.

“Arizona is now the gold standard for educational freedom,” the governor said.

The expansion of ESAs under HB2853 was sponsored by House Majority Leader Ben Toma (R-Peoria) with the support of the Goldwater Institute. ESAs are paid out as scholarships for families to use for tuition and tutoring expenses as well as transportation, textbooks, computers, and other costs related to supporting a student’s educational needs.

ESAs served roughly 100 Arizona students back in 2011. Last year that number was 11,000. But with HB2853 now in effect, all 1.1 million students at the K-12 level.

“This reform empowers parents weary of a one-size-fits-all approach to public education to customize their children’s schooling based on their unique needs,” Goldwater Institute President and CEO Victor Riches said when the law took effect. Riches added that Arizona families “deserve the right to choose the best education option for their children, regardless of zip code.”

“States around the nation should follow Arizona’s lead and pass legislation that funds students, not systems,” he said.

Reactions to Tuesday’s signing ceremony event were very positive.

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At Least 24 Percent of Arizona Legislators Funded By 50 Percent or More PAC, Lobbyist Money

At Least 24 Percent of Arizona Legislators Funded By 50 Percent or More PAC, Lobbyist Money

By Corinne Murdock |

AZ Free News sampled 46 legislators’ latest campaign finance reports of the state legislature and found that 22 of 47 legislators sampled received 50 percent or more of their campaign contributions from either lobbyists or PACs. 

PACs and lobbyists have significant footing in the legislature. That would explain why the first week of January is known as “hell week” within the legislature — not because they’re in preparation for the new session kicking off, but because lobbyists are scrambling to fundraise for legislators. Arizona law prohibits legislators from receiving lobbyist campaign contributions while in regular session. 

The following are state legislators that receive 50 percent or more of their campaign funds from PACs and lobbyists combined: 

In the House, Richard Andrade (D-Glendale), about 51 percent; Ben Toma (R-Peoria), about 56 percent; Lorenzo Sierra (D-Avondale), about 62 percent; Steve Kaiser (R-Phoenix), about 64 percent; John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills), about 64 percent; Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa), about 64 percent; Diego Espinoza (D-Tolleson), about 66 percent; Joanne Osborne (R-Goodyear), about 74 percent; David Cook (R-Globe), about 75 percent; Justin Wilmeth (R-Phoenix), about 79 percent; John Fillmore (R-Apache Junction), about 83 percent; Tim Dunn (R-Yuma), about 87 percent; and Kelli Butler (D-Paradise Valley), about 96 percent. 

In the Senate, Vince Leach (R-Tucson), about 53 percent; T.J. Shope (R-Coolidge), about 56 percent;  David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista), about 71 percent; Rosanna Gabaldon (D-Sahuarita), about 73 percent; Lupe Contreras (D-Avondale), about 75 percent; Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City), about 79 percent;  Tyler Pace (R-Mesa), about 82 percent; Sine Kerr (R-Buckeye), about 90 percent; and David Livingston (R-Peoria), about 91 percent.

Of note, all of Gowan’s 32 contributions came from outside of his district — 28 came from Maricopa County. Additionally, $5,000 of Gowan’s $8,950 non-lobbyist contributions came from Phoenix Coyotes owner Alex Merulo.

Butler received over $10,000 from the Tucson branch of one of the largest labor unions in the country: the United Food and Commercial Workers (UCFW). Her PAC contributions totaled $13,000, and $150 of her individual contributions were from lobbyists. There were several inactive lobbyist donors among the individual contributions totaling $250. In all, Butler’s total contributions were over $13,700.

Wilmeth’s ten non-lobbyist donors included three inactive lobbyists and one wife of an inactive lobbyist. 

Five legislators sampled reportedly received less than 10 percent of funds from PACs and lobbyists: Morgan Abraham, about 4 percent; Quang Nguyen, about 7 percent; Judy Burges, about 7 percent; Amish Shah, about 7 percent; and Joseph Chaplik, about 8 percent.

There were several legislators sampled that we couldn’t review because their reports haven’t been filed yet — even though they were due well over two months ago.

State Representative Alma Hernandez (D-Tucson) still hasn’t filed her campaign finance report due April 15. Hernandez has been late consistently since her first year in office (2018), accruing $3,500 in fines altogether. Her latest campaign finance report, which she has yet to file, is 76 days late and she owed $1,675 currently — her highest single fine to date. It took Hernandez 69 extra days to file her 2021 cumulative finance report: it was due January 15, but she filed it March 25. 

Just over half of Hernandez’s individual donors from her last report, the cumulative one for 2021, were from out of state and made up the majority of those contributions: $5,980 versus the $3,920 from Arizona. Among them were several prominent figures in the Jewish community including acclaimed author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s son, Elisha Wiesel, as well as Broadway star Jonah Platt.

State Senator Stephanie Stahl Hamilton (D-Tucson) did file her report on time — but like Hernandez, over half of the individual contributors on her latest campaign finance report were from out of state. 

It appears that the Hernandez siblings are alike when it comes to campaign finance reports. Since the year his sister took office, Hernandez grew increasingly tardy with filing the reports. For two separate 2020 reports, he accrued over $5,100 in fines. His 2021 cumulative report was filed late by 67 days, and he was fined $1,450 for that. Both the Hernandez siblings are 76 days late on their first quarter report.

Another perennially tardy filer is State Representative César Chávez (D-Maryvale). Like Hernandez, he is 76 dates late and owes $1,675, but for his senate campaign’s first quarter report. Chávez was also late by 58 days to file his senate campaign’s 2021 cumulative report, owing $1,225. 

Similarly to Hernandez, Chávez has a history of late filings, the highest of which were 121 days late to file his 2020 pre-general election filing, 163 days late to file his 2016 pre-general election report, and 953 days late to file his 2016 first report for the fourth quarter and post-general election report.

One interesting campaign finance report came from State Senator Wendy Rogers (R-Flagstaff). The report totaled nearly 600 pages, with 586 dedicated to individual contributions alone that totaled nearly $360,000. No lobbyists could be discerned among the over 7,000 contributors, and over 1,600 of them were Arizonans. A vast majority were retired, nearly 4,500 of them, bolstered by the self-employed and small business owners.

Only one PAC donated to Rogers: the Save America PAC gave one contribution of $5,000 in January.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Universal School Choice Passes Arizona House

Universal School Choice Passes Arizona House

By Corinne Murdock |

The Arizona House approved a universal expansion of the state’s school choice program on Wednesday afternoon. It now heads to the Senate for review.

The legislation, HB2853 by State Representative Ben Toma (R-Peoria), prompted protracted arguments that delayed the vote for about an hour. House Republicans managed to overcome Tuesday’s budget disputes to rally the majority to pass the bill, 31-26 along party lines. Anti-school choice activists in the gallery shouted “Shame!” repeatedly as the vote totals were read, adding to their general disruption and commentary presented throughout the hour-long debate on HB2853.

Democrats asserted that public schools weren’t fully funded, insinuating that was why they fell short in the eyes of Republicans and what they claimed was a minority of Arizona parents. They insisted that universal school choice through the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program contradicted the will of a majority of Arizona voters.

Republicans argued that school choice should be the option for all students, regardless of income or zip code. They repeated the idea that parents were the ultimate accountability for student success and outcomes, not government. 

As the final vote and argument presented, Toma argued that Democrats’ logic meant that voters couldn’t ever possibly change their mind on the subject of school choice, which he insisted wasn’t true. Toma insisted that dollars should follow the students and not be the ownership of individual systems.

Toma wondered why private schools should be the exclusive domain of the wealthy, citing back to committee testimony from Drew Anderson — a South Phoenix pastor, Democrat, and beneficiary of school choice, which lifted him out of the squalor of public schools and onto a path resulting in his becoming an NFL player and consequently enabling him to lift his entire family out of poverty.

“This is giving everyone the opportunity to make full use of all their choices,” said Toma.

AZ Free News summarized the highlights of the partisan floor arguments for and against HB2853.

Democrat Arguments Against Universal School Choice:

State Representative Kelli Butler (D-Paradise Valley) characterized the bill repeatedly as “disrespecting the will of voters,” which earned reprimanding from Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham (R-Gilbert). Butler doubted that beneficiaries of the ESA Program were using their funds to “learn anything,” claiming that there wasn’t proper oversight of beneficiary schools’ curriculum.

“They could be learning the most basic things and using our tax dollars,” said Butler.

State Representative Lorenzo Sierra (D-Avondale) said that public schools provided a far superior education, pointing out that 19 out of 20 Flinn Scholars went to public schools.

Sierra also predicted there would be regulations on this bill, speculating that a group of liberals would launch a school built around the 1619 Project, and that the legislature would then attempt to regulate private schools if that happened.

State Representative Judy Schwiebert (D-Phoenix) said that a vast majority of families choose a public district for their children because of their accountability and presence of school boards, calling public school curriculum “well-rounded, publicly vetted, [and] diverse.” 

Ultimately, Schwiebert insisted that not all children deserved school choice.

“Technically I know we’re giving it to parents, but let’s be real about it, we’re funneling it to private schools,” said Schwiebert. 

State Representative Mitzi Epstein (D-Chandler) said that school choice expansion at this scale would greatly increase cost of administration, and called parents’ access to taxpayer dollars to individualize their children’s education “inefficient.”

State Representative Andrés Cano (D-Tucson) asked his Republican colleagues to submit personal financial disclosures about their benefit to school choice.

State Representative Sarah Liguori complained that the ESA Program was corrupted because some of her wealthier “mom friends” used program funds toward their children’s education. Ligouri said that those individuals should pay for private schooling themselves.

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D-Laveen) claimed that “millionaires and billionaires” would receive a check to subsidize their child’s private schooling. He claimed that private schools wouldn’t return ESA program money even if the family couldn’t cover the rest of the tuition, and that public schools would have to “pick up the slack.”

State Representative Melody Hernandez (D-Tempe) said that expanding the ESA Program would actually trap low-income families in failing schools, many of whom she said were minorities. She called the bill “immoral,” and claimed that Republicans were targeting people like her by expanding a system of oppression.

Republican Arguments For Universal School Choice:

State Representative Lupe Diaz (R-Hereford) insisted that Democrats’ arguments about the harm of school choice couldn’t be true based on the longevity and successes of school choice in Arizona’s history.

“If this program causes so much heartache and blows up public schools, then it wouldn’t have the longevity it has now,” asserted Diaz.

State Representative Shawnna Bolick (R-Phoenix) said she would’ve loved to have school choice options like this growing up, and asserted that it was a good thing that children could use ESA dollars for college education as well.

“Why should we wait until higher education to allow taxpayers to utilize these public dollars for their [children’s] education?” said Bolick.

State Representative John Fillmore (R-Apache Junction) reminded the floor that K-12 spending eats up almost half of general fund money, yet Democrats argued it wasn’t enough. Fillmore also read Arizona Department of Education (ADE) data revealing the low passage rates for children in standardized testing.

“The fact of the matter is, the schools have failed us. Parents are taking their kids out because they see this failure,” said Fillmore. 

State Representative Joanne Osborne (R-Goodyear) said that every generation of her family dating back to the late 1890s graduated from Arizona’s public school systems, and that her daughter is a current public school teacher, but that those factors didn’t outweigh her care for children’s needs. 

Osborne characterized HB2853 as a win for all Arizona schoolchildren, and asserted that a majority of Arizona parents want school choice. Her remark prompted commentary from the gallery.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Universal School Choice Expansion for Arizona Families Passes House Committee

Universal School Choice Expansion for Arizona Families Passes House Committee

By Corinne Murdock |

On Wednesday, the State House Ways and Means Committee passed legislation establishing school choice for all parents who choose to use it. The 6-4 approval marks a historic advancement for expansion of the state’s school choice program, Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA).

The legislation, HB2853, comes from State Representative Ben Toma (R-Peoria) about 11 years after the ESA Program launched.

Bipartisanship was far from the committee during discussion of this bill. Democrats insisted that voters in the past rejected universal ESA expansion, that families would spend their ESA dollars frivolously or wastefully, that there weren’t enough regulations on non-public schools, and that public schools would be bled of crucial funds. Republicans insisted that post-pandemic voters support universal school choice, and that parents knew what was best for their children and would choose accordingly.

Toma challenged the idea that Arizona’s public schools were underfunded, something that Democrats like State Representative Kelli Butler (D-Paradise Valley) and Arizona Education Association (AEA) President-elect Marisol Garcia testified. Toma asked for a definitive number that constituted “fully funded.” Garcia suggested that outranking other state’s funding totals would constitute “fully funded.” In response, Toma pointed out that education funding increased by 48 percent during his tenure in the legislature, adding that much of those funds didn’t end up in teacher’s salaries.

State Representative Brenda Barton (R-Payson) concurred with Toma’s assessment, saying that in her 11 years she’s never gotten a hard answer from any public school proponents or officials of what “fully funded” meant for them. 

Chairwoman Shawnna Bolick (R-Phoenix) estimated 25,000 students might utilize the ESA program if expanded under HB2853. 

“If we’re helping a student get a lifeline, at the end of the day I’ll actually know we’re doing a good job as a legislature,” said Bolick. 

Several Democrats insisted that they wanted to see long-term data on ESA students’ performance rates. Toma said there wasn’t a way to issue a fair comparison of those students because a majority of current users had disabilities, and comparing performance across different disabilities wasn’t an “apples to apples” comparison.

State Representative Pamela Powers Hannley (D-Tucson) argued that program effectiveness could still be measured through methods like sheer counts of private and charter school students.

“I think it’s important to know how many students are enrolled across the state because this is state money,” said Powers Hannley. 

There are about 1.1 million charter and public school students. 

State Representative Mitzi Epstein (D-Chandler) compared private schools to Walmart stores, insinuating that they were a less desirable option that communities were stuck with. Epstein also challenged why taxpayers should have to pay for children to visit the school they desire. 

As a rebuttal for worry over potential private waste of public dollars, Toma pointed out the controversy over Buckeye Elementary School District paying its superintendent over $1.7 million in “additional compensation” from 2016 to 2021. Toma doubted that one individual’s misuse of ESA funds would reach that amount. He added that whenever people are involved, misuse is bound to happen. 

“There are issues with any sort of system in which human beings are involved,” said Toma. “Fraud [with ESAs], if there is fraud, is less than one percent.”

In an attempt to cite waste of school funds, Butler listed allowable ESA expenditures she found objectionable, such as a bouncy castle and a tonal home gym costing thousands of dollars. Both Bolick and Toma reminded Butler that the Arizona State Board of Education (SBE) and the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) approved the handbook, clarifying further that Superintendent Kathy Hoffman’s office was responsible for writing it.

The two GOP legislators suggested that their Democratic peer take up her grievances with Hoffman.

Bolick also noted that bounce houses are within individualized education plan (IEP) parameters for curriculum-related therapies. Butler said that was besides her point. She went on to claim the state can’t afford to give every special needs child in the state their own bounce house for several hundred dollars — rather, schools should just purchase one for all special needs students. Butler called the tonal home gym “beyond the pale,” at which point Bolick cut her off for “beat[ing] a dead horse.” 

Bolick and Butler contended over whether the entirety of Arizona’s 1.1 million charter and private school students would actually use ESAs. 

Butler referenced access to ESA funds as “debit cards” repeatedly, to which Toma and Cobb objected. They, along with Bolick, explained to Butler that she was referring to an outdated system. They also contended with Butler’s attempted characterization of ESA funds as “thousands of dollars in a bank account.” At that point, Bolick suggested again to Butler that she seek out instruction from Hoffman about how the ESA Program works currently. 

Among those to testify in favor of ESA Program expansion was Jennifer Clark, a mother of five. She explained that ESAs have helped several of her children with special learning needs like dyslexia and disabilities. 

Clark further described how the public school system was currently failing her daughter with its stalled processing of her educational needs. She insisted that HB2853’s allowance for outside assessments would expedite solutions for situations like her daughter’s.

“All Arizonan families deserve equitable access to ESAs regardless of their income or zip code,” said Clark.

Drew Anderson, a South Phoenix Democrat and pastor, pointed out that the majority-white crowd protesting with the likes of Save Our Schools against the bill didn’t represent or understand the needs of minority parents — especially those in inner city schools like the Roosevelt School District. 

“I don’t see anybody screaming ‘save our schools’ in south Phoenix,” said Anderson. “I hear them screaming ‘save our children.'”

Anderson described how inner-city children in his area, many from the Roosevelt School District, had to do school at McDonalds during the pandemic because they didn’t have internet at home.

The pastor then explained that one of his church members admitted to selling drugs on the side to get his siblings out of public schools. Their mother is deceased, Anderson explained, and one of the man’s younger sisters was attacked by a group of 14-year-old girls at her school.

“He had to find whatever means he could to try to get his brothers and sisters into private schools. He’s putting his freedom on the line to do that,” said Anderson. “Why is it that the rich kids can afford to go to these better schools, but these poorer kids can’t?”

HB2853 would empower parents with access to taxpayer funds already allocated for their students to apply to the schooling of their choice. The bill would appropriate $2.2 million and 26 full-time equivalent positions from the state general fund in 2023 to the ADE.

HB2853 would also enable ESA funds to be used for public transportation; computer hardware; educational technology like calculators, personal computers, laptops, tablets, microscopes, telescopes, and printers; consumable educational supplies like paper, pens, and markers; and additional disability services and education plan costs.

As for enrollment eligibility, the legislation would reduce the number of hours needed for K-12 online students to qualify by about half. It would also require students in grades 3-12 take nationally standardized tests, which may be swapped out for exams chosen by parents or qualified schools. Students with disabilities would be exempted from that examination requirement. Additionally, qualified schools with 50 or more ESA students must issue the aggregate test scores of all enrolled students or all ESA students annually. 

Furthermore, the bill would expand the appeal deadline to 15 business days, and allow parents to represent themselves or designate non-attorney representatives in appeals hearings. 

If passed as introduced, HB2853 includes a retroactivity clause rendering it effective as of July 1 of this year. 

HB2853 angered school choice opponents. They claimed that the bill would rob public schools of their funding and award it to private schools and special interests.

At the time of press, GOP gubernatorial candidates Matt Salmon and Karrin Taylor Robson signaled support for HB2853. 

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Religious Freedoms Now Protected During A State Of Emergency

Religious Freedoms Now Protected During A State Of Emergency

By Terri Jo Neff |

A new law will take effect in Arizona this summer to prevent state officials from shutting down churches or religious services during a public health or public safety emergency.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2507 on Monday, defining a religious service as an essential service during a declared state of emergency. The legislation also  protects the fundamental right of Arizonans to exercise their religion freely during a time of crisis and further protects a religious organization from discrimination when it operates or seeks to operate during a state of emergency.

HB2507, which was sponsored by House Republican Majority Leader Ben Toma, notes the U.S. Constriction expressly protects the free exercise of religion, including the right to hold beliefs  inwardly and secretly as well as the right “to act on those beliefs outwardly and publicly.”

Toma, who received bipartisan support for HB2507 in the House, said he introduced the bill to ensure Arizonans’ religious freedoms are forever protected.

“During the pandemic, while Arizona was blessed with government leaders that respected religious freedom and the essential role of religious organizations to the people, that wasn’t the situation in some neighboring states,” Toma said. “This law ensures that religious freedom and services in Arizona will continue to be protected in the future, regardless of any emergency, or who leads the state.”

Rep. Lupe Diaz, himself a pastor, said religion is an essential service and religious freedom is essential, which was especially true during the pandemic when Arizonans were facing so many challenges.

“As we look at being able to exercise our religious liberties, which is a constitutional right, it is amazing that we can be denied gathering at churches, yet have stadiums, malls and box stores open,” Diaz said last week in explaining his vote for HB2507.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, also applauded the signing of HB2507 into law. She noted that while public officials have the authority to protect health and public safety, they cannot suspend the First Amendment, including the free exercise of religion.  

“By signing HB 2507 the Governor acknowledges the fact that religious organizations provide essential services that are vital to the health and welfare of the public,” Herrod said Monday. “They not only meet the spiritual needs of our communities, but they also support social services, health care, and economic activity.”