Opposition simmering over education bill that would let parents use taxpayer dollars to send kids to private schools

Protesters voice their opposition to a bill that they say would divert taxpayer money into the pockets of the more fortunate. [Independent Newsmedia/Philip Haldiman]

Opposition is simmering in the West Valley over a bill making its way through the state Legislature that would let parents use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private and parochial schools at the expense of public schools.

About 20 people last week gathered in the Peoria neighborhood of Sen. Debbie Lesko to protest her measure, Senate Bill 1431. Organizers say more protests will follow.

The Republican lawmaker, who represents District 21 covering the Northwest Valley, says her bill gives more educational choices to children. However, opponents such as Surprise resident Wendy Garcia say the bill would divert funds away from a financially struggling public school system.

“My special interest is that of my kids and the kids of Arizona, whose parents will not be able to afford the monetary gap between what vouchers will pay and the average cost of tuitions,” said Ms. Garcia, who helped organize the protest and has two children who attend Dysart Unified School District. “We should not be taking funds away from the public education pool to enable families that can afford to send children to a better private school at the expense of middle Americans and low-income families.”

Prior to the protest, Ms. Garcia and others had testified against the bill at the Legislature.

Bills in the House and Senate have been heard in committee and will next be heard on the floors of both chambers, but a date had not been set by press time.

Sen. Lesko, who was at the state Legislature during the protest, disagreed with opponents’ belief that her bill would draw funds away from public school districts.

State funding for public schools is based on student enrollment, and a district loses money when a student leaves.

“We are already allowing students to move from district to charter schools. The same movement is happening now. Their message is a false narrative,” Ms. Lesko said. “The reason I am doing this bill is because it adds another option for parents to choose the best educational option for their student.”

SB 1431 would greatly expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, a bill signed in 2011 to improve educational options for students with special needs. The law would open the program to students who attend public schools and would essentially give $5,600 to eligible students to attend private schools or fund other educational expenses, such as textbooks and tutoring.

There are more than 1 million students in Arizona who attend public schools, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

A recent report released by the joint legislative budget committee estimates about 2.6 percent of eligible students would participate in the ESA program, leading to an increased cost of $12.9 million by 2020, and an additional cost of $24.5 million by  2021.

The Arizona School Boards Association has come out against the bill stating that the expanded program would be unsustainable, costing the state an additional $1 billion if every student attending a district public school was funded at an ESA level, leading to increased taxes or dramatic cuts to the public school system.

Kathy Knecht, a Peoria Unified School District governing board member and former president of the Arizona School Boards Association, said efforts to privatize education are not good for society as a whole because they take resources away from school districts, that are designed to provide services to any and all students.

The way ESA is designed, it does not provide true access to quality education to kids who need it, but is instead a subsidy to wealthy families who already have kids in private schools, Ms. Knecht said.

Two schools are at capacity in PUSD, which will be up against a funding challenge in the coming years due to the failure of a $198 million bond in last November’s election that would have funded one new elementary and high school, facility improvements, technology and student transportation.

“Do our public schools need help? Yes. So, diverting funds away from them doesn’t make them better. About 35,000 kids are counting on our school district to deliver high-quality instruction and programs. Every time the state Legislature diverts funds away from districts, it makes it harder for us to deliver on that promise,” she said. “PUSD is the largest employer in Peoria. People who work there fuel this economy. Kids who come out the district fuel it as well. We have a gem in our backyard — we have championship sports teams, more than $60 million in scholarships awarded to our students, we have kids going to Harvard and Cornell. Why would we want to diminish that?”

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, supports SB 1431. Education Policy Director Jonathan Butcher said ESAs allow families to customize their child’s education.

With an ESA account, the state deposits a portion of a child’s funds from the state formula into a private account that parents can use to buy educational products and services for their children.

Mr. Butcher said the bill provides more options than just choosing a private school for a child — for children struggling in math at their local school, for example, parents can use an account to hire a personal tutor and enroll them in online classes or take college classes early, and even save some of the account funds for future college expenses.

“Since 2011, children with special needs and children assigned to failing public schools have been eligible to use an account, but Sen. Lesko’s legislation would give every Arizona child — including children in the West Valley — the same access to such an account. All West Valley and Peoria children should have the same access to a high-quality learning experience, no matter their needs or zip code,” Mr. Butcher said. “The accounts come with a transparent accounting process, and taxpayers and state agencies can track every dollar parents and students use to make sure the funds are only being used for a child’s education.”

On the afternoon of Feb. 13, chants of, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Debbie Lesko’s got to go,” rang out in front of Ms. Lesko’s home, located in an affluent neighborhood of Peoria where the sights of children riding their bikes or scooters are common.

Cars honked and signs exclaimed, “Save our schools,” and “Debbie Lesko gutting public schools.”

Ms. Lesko took issue with protesters’ decision to take their grievance into her neighborhood.

With the many options available to oppose her bill, Ms. Lesko said, the choice to assemble in her neighborhood is more like intimidation than protest.

“They have plenty of outlets. It would have been more effective if they had come down to the state Capitol to protest or testify against my bill, or register online to comment (on the bill),” Sen. Lesko said. “I am a survivor of domestic abuse, and these people are not going to intimidate me.”

Nearby neighbor Harold Barnes said public schools need improvement, but agreed with Sen. Lesko that the protesters chose an inappropriate place to voice their opposition to SB 1431.

“Everybody needs to get involved in the discussion but protesting in a neighborhood is not getting everybody involved in the discussion,” he said. “This way of doing it won’t get positive reinforcement. I believe in saving our schools but this is the wrong way to do it.”

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