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.