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.
On Wednesday, the State House Ways and Means Committee passedlegislation 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.
In 2008, I introduced and passed legislation to grade schools in Arizona on the A through F letter grading system. The system was to be based on the test scores and academic gains of students.
If I were king, I would abolish the system which I established. I believe that it has inhibited innovation, damaged great schools, and shifted the focus in education away from the critical areas most fruitful for getting better outcomes in Arizona.
Letter grading, in part, has resulted in Arizona not achieving the full dividend we might have received from our tremendously advanced school choice environment. We are doing very well, but we should have done even better.
These detrimental effects particularly affect D and F rated schools.
I’ve worked inside such schools daily as a volunteer since leaving as Superintendent in 2014, so I have been able to directly observe the effects. Tremendously skilled and dedicated principals and teachers apply to work in such schools because they have a passion for the students. Then, a few years later, they are “all burned out”—as one father described his daughter, a teacher, during a recent fundraiser. These schools burn through principals and teachers at a horrifying rate with teachers, particularly excellent ones, leaving for more satisfying work environments.
Certainly, such schools have always been high pressure environments, but the letter grading just increases the pressure, already unhealthy, to an absolutely toxic level.
As Superintendent of Public Instruction, I had the ultimate test score database: every student’s testing results for six consecutive years. I could tell you the academic gains of Basis students when they were in Basis schools and when they were in other schools. Bottom line? The academic scale score gains of the top schools were 20% higher than the academic gains of the D and F schools. That’s all. That’s it.
Being a volunteer as former Superintendent, I was immune to all that pressure. I ran my math class exactly the way I wanted to run it. When the thought police showed up and demanded to know if I was teaching to the standards, I assured them absolutely. The students who didn’t know how to count were counting. The students who didn’t know how to add were adding. The students who didn’t know how to multiply were multiplying. They were all on their way toward the fractions, decimal, and proportion standards of fourth grade. They weren’t there yet because none of my fourth-grade students had achieved third grade standards, and few had achieved second grade standards. But we were on our way.
My scale score gains were double the statewide average. But not the best. One other teacher bested me by a point, a particularly inspirational sixth grade teacher. One year, one class in a school with 27 classes was not enough to rescue the school’s letter grade.
That teacher still haunts me. He should have received great accolades for his accomplishment. He should have been featured on TV. His students loved him. He was saving students from jail. He was saving students from drug addiction. He was saving students from prison. Instead, he soon left the school.
This year, I am working in kindergarten. Why? Because as I did my work, I came to understand that the initial years in school are, by far, the most critical years. In these years, students establish their personal identity, their habits, and their foundational skills.
How does this relate to letter grading? Letter grades can only take into account academic gains from fourth grade to eighth grade. Our first test is at the end of third grade, establishing the baseline for measuring academic gains in fourth grade.
The academic gains from fourth grade to eighth grade are less than the academic gains from the start of kindergarten to the end of third grade.
So, the entire letter grade system is based on the least important half of the pie. As a result, the attention of the entire system is shifted away from where it should be focused—the early years.
Education culture is the foundation of our entire society. How we think, how we interact. Our degree of interconnectedness. We can do better. We should be the state the goes full free market. Get rid of letter grades. Instead publish customer satisfaction scores. And let’s find out what percentage of parents believe their child is getting an INCREDIBLY GREAT education when given a choice between that and very good, good, or poor.
Tucson elementary school teacher and prominent Red for Ed activist Wes Oswald derided school choice in a Twitter video posted earlier this week. In addition to teaching the third grade at Manzo Elementary School in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) and his Red for Ed activity, Oswald has been active in Arizona Educators United (AEU) and Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona.
Oswald claimed that private schools aren’t held to the “same high measure” as public schools. He insinuated that taxpayer dollars mostly funded private and religious schools through vouchers.
“Vouchers really are just coupons frequently used by the wealthy to send their kids to private schools at a discounted rate,” said Oswald. “Let’s stop falling for school choice schemes. The vast majority of American families choose to send their kids to public schools. Our public tax dollars belong to public schools, not private and religious ones.”
Oswald also claimed that 95 percent of Arizona families “choose” public schools. Recent polling suggested otherwise: according to Data Orbital, over 80 percent of 600 Arizonans polled supported school choice.
According to recent research by the Goldwater Institute, Arizona’s K-12 public schools are more expensive than a four-year university: over $14,300 per student annually when combining state, local, and federal dollars, versus the cost of over $11,300 for higher education tuition.
AZ Free News attempted to contact Oswald to ask why he opposed ; however, his TUSD email appeared to be disconnected, and we couldn’t reach him for comment by press time.
During the 2018 election, Oswald was featured by Tucson News Now for his “Knoctober” initiative, where Red For Ed supporters attempted to knock on 80,000 doors statewide to campaign for their preferred, pro-public school candidates. In several of the clips, Arizona Department of Education (ADE) Superintendent Kathy Hoffman could be seen knocking doors and giving presentations alongside Red for Ed activists. Hoffman was campaigning for her current office at the time.
“We’re all banking on big change in November. We’ve already come this far — we had 75,000 people walk out in April, and we can’t come this close and just give up,” said Oswald.
Several years later, Oswald was a featured speaker for ADE’s event last April, “The Health of Our Democracy: Civics Here and Now,” as part of the “Educating For American Democracy Initiative.”
Around the same time, Oswald lamented to KGUN about handling the challenges of in-person teaching with some students learning remotely. Oswald has been opposed to in-person learning when any increase in COVID-19 cases occurs.
Governor Doug Ducey’s State of the State Address focused on the positives when it came to Arizona, largely reserving criticism for the Biden Administration and federal government as a whole. The governor referenced COVID-19 a mere three times in his hour-long speech, not once mentioning case numbers, death tolls, health care workers, recovery, safety protocols, relief funding, or the like — indicating that the focus in the final year of his administration will concern all but COVID-19 mitigation.
The governor made several explicit promises: a budget published on Friday, further tax cuts, a K-12 learning loss summer camp program, expungement of critical race theory from classrooms, increased resources for foster care families, crackdown on government abuse such as charging victims to process rape kits, and expedited plans of the I-10 expansion.
The governor also announced a five-step plan to address the border crisis; 1) increased funding to the Arizona Border Strike Force and border counties; 2) increased criminal penalties for human traffickers; 3) the American Governor’s Border Strike Force, a novel alliance with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and their top law enforcement; 4) building the remainder of the border wall; 5) a sort of strike in which U.S. senators refuse to vote “yes” on any legislation until President Joe Biden builds the border wall, installs virtual border surveillance, increases funding to local communities harmed by the border crisis, and clarifies to illegal immigrants that the border isn’t open. For that last point, Ducey suggested that Senators Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) take advantage of draft legislation he provided on his website.
Ducey requested the legislature take up certain initiatives: establishing a program to waive the tuition of military spouses, similar to Texas’ Hazlewood Act; requiring searchable online publication of all K-12 curriculum and academic materials; school choice expansion such as through greater open enrollment, new transportation, more charter schools; . Ducey shared that public safety would be a top priority within the budget, with proposals such as making state troopers the highest paid law enforcement statewide.
The governor stated that his administration’s successes manifested as small business liability reform, wildfire solutions and funding, tribal gaming compact modernization to increase revenue streams, school choice, record funding for infrastructure, near-total COVID-19 vaccination of the state’s 65-and-older population, telemedicine, the lowest flat tax nationwide with the largest tax cut in state history, new regulation moratorium, improved foster care system, a border strike force to handle cartels and crime,
“[A]nyone who has ever worked with me will attest: I have a hard time stopping to celebrate victory,” said Ducey.
The governor highlighted how the state budget was underwater by $1 billion when he assumed office, caused by the recession and what Ducey called “out-of-control spending” and “budget shellgames.” He reminded those present that money was so tight the state government sold the deed to the state capitol.
Ducey reported a current surplus amounting to billions of dollars, a portion of which helped the state buy the capitol’s deed back several years ago. Likewise, he recalled how most job availability just prior to his administration was found in construction and call centers due to national perception of Arizona as a “flyover state” to Texas; Ducey explained that the state has since greatly diversified its job market.
“Now, because of our combined work, we have an all-of-the-above approach on jobs. Not just call centers but also car manufacturers, autonomous vehicles, tech start-ups and world-class semiconductors,” said Ducey. “We said we wanted to be a jobs juggernaut, and in the process, we became a paycheck paradise. Plus, unlike California, Illinois and New York, here you actually get to keep your paycheck.”
Ducey detailed how he dedicated himself to “shrink a government and grow an economy.” In addition to improvements in the unseen, like flow of state cash, Ducey pointed out that he’d reduced government size to a point where 750,000 square feet of government buildings have been demolished during his administration. The governor also emphasized that his focus for his final year would be to offset the living costs caused by Biden Administration policies.
“It’s really not that complicated; it’s just basic common sense. Government takes in more than it needs to pay the bills, and the taxpayer should get to keep his or her hard-earned dollars,” declared Ducey.
Ducey stated his decision to reject certain unemployment benefits deemed unnecessary, criticizing the Biden Administration for incentivizing people to not work.
“That’s not the Arizona way,” said Ducey. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch or free money. Instead we will focus on rewarding hard work.”
Concerning the border, Ducey warned that President Joe Biden and his administration are working against Arizona. The governor lobbed criticisms at Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Vice President Kamala Harris for keeping a cool distance from their duty to solve the crisis.
Ducey called out Attorney General Merrick Garland directly for focusing on one incident within the Phoenix Police Department (PPD) while handling Black Lives Matter (BLM) unrest.
“If you are an elected official charged with overseeing a police department and you don’t believe there’s a correlation between the attacks on law enforcement and rising crime rates nationally, you need a reality check because you’re putting public safety and human life at risk. We intend to keep Arizona a place where we honor and value our cops and all of law enforcement, including correctional officers and first responders. A place where public safety matters. No riots. No smash and grab. And a news flash for the DOJ and Merrick Garland: Mr. Attorney General, instead of attacking Police Chief Jeri Williams and her officers for risking their lives and keeping Arizona streets safe during civil unrest, your time would be better spent protecting the federal courthouses in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. Do your job.”
While on the subject of different approaches to governance, the governor also addressed the massive influx of blue-state transplants, calling it the “good problem” of growth. He chalked the migration to discomfort with Democratic policies leading to issues such as higher taxes and stricter COVID-19 regulations.
For the transplants, Ducey had one specific message.
“Don’t forget why you came here in the first place. Freedom, opportunity, and good government matter,” said Ducey.
In regard to K-12 education, Ducey asserted that the state legislature under the previous administration was more interested in maxing out expenditures than quality of education. Ducey also placed blame with those school boards and unionists for imposing COVID-19 policy that did more harm to children than good. With that, the governor insisted on the importance of school choice, especially for the poorer and minority children. Ducey likened teachers unions and their supporters to Civil Rights-era politicians barring minority children from entering schools.
“Fifty-plus years ago politicians stood in the schoolhouse door and wouldn’t let minorities in, today union-backed politicians stand in the schoolhouse door and won’t let minorities out,” said Ducey. “Many of our poor kids and children of color are trapped in a failing school. It’s time to set these families free.”
As for current issues the state faces, Ducey highlighted a “massive” backlog of untested rape kits, some of which his administration cleared up only to discover government abuse in the form of bureaucrats charging victims up to $800 in processing charges and sending collections agencies after the victims if not paid. The governor also broached the subject of drought mitigation and water supply, proposing a $1 billion investment in Mexico for desalination technology.
In closing, Ducey dismissed doubts of little to no progress due to a divided legislature and the upcoming midterm elections. His final remarks centered the focus for his last year as governor.
“As you see, as much progress as we’ve made – there’s plenty left to do on so many fronts,” said Ducey. “And we’ll have all year to grind it out together: a continued focus on the health of our citizens, and support for our hospitals, and dedicated healthcare workers; investments in cyber security to protect the identity and data of our citizens; improvements to our elections, to bring confidence and security; better broadband connectivity all across rural Arizona; more efforts to prevent wildfires; maintaining Arizona’s position as the number one pro-second amendment state in the nation; protecting life in every way possible; and all along the way, preparing for another Super Bowl, where our beautiful state will be center stage just a year from now.”