(The Center Square) – Arizona Republicans are a few steps from sending Gov. Doug Ducey a broad expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account Program.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted Wednesday in favor of Senate Bill 1452 after two hours of tense debate. If enacted, it would expand the ESA eligibility to any student who resides in a Title I school district. Districts are designated Title I schools if they have a high ratio of low-income students or a high rate of free-or-reduced lunch program participants.
The ESA program, which began in 2011, allows parents to take a portion of the state funds allocated to their child’s school and put it toward the cost of attending a private, charter or out-of-district school. It has 9,808 students participating. After the change, 800,000 of the state’s 1.1 million students would be eligible for the expanded program, estimates said. It would represent one of the nation’s most-expansive school-choice programs.
Opponents contend the program siphons needed funds from Arizona’s public schools, which are some of the lowest funded in the country.
“We’re subsidizing private, religious schools with these ESA dollars,” said Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe. “In a public school, through the state board of education and a whole inclusive process that the whole state gets to participate in, would decide what children learn. In a private school, it’s the owners and donors that decide.”
Epstein went on to say school owners who decide curriculum could be “Walmart or Planned Parenthood.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, told the committee the bill could be a “life-changer” for low-income students who had suffered through the inequities of virtual learning in 2020.
“At this point, we need these students to just catch up from where they are,” he said. “Our constituents ... they want this.”
Boyer cited a New York Times poll that showed broad support for ESA programs across the political spectrum.
Voters shot down a referendum in 2018 that would have allowed all public school students in the state to be eligible for the ESAs.
The bill passed along partisan lines. The full House must vote on it before being sent to the governor for consideration.