By Philip Haldiman
About 20 protesters took to the neighborhood where Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria) lives to have their voices heard in opposition to her proposed bill, SB 1431, which would allow tax-payer dollars to help parents pay for their children to attend private and parochial schools rather than public schools.
The proposal would expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, a bill signed in 2011 to improve educational options for students with special needs.
The group of protesters opposed the bill, stating it would take funds away from an already suffering public school system.
Surprise resident Wendy Garcia, who helped organize the protest, said the voucher is a bad idea considering there are not enough funds to support public schools at present. She has children who attend Peoria Unified School District, 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.
Ms. Garcia said SB 1431 is paid for by taking more and more money from desperately shortchanged public schools and further destroying education in the state.
The bill has been heard in committee at the legislature and will next be heard on the Senate floor, but a date has not yet been set.
“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 tuition,” she said. “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.”
But 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.
A district loses money because a student leaves, she said.
“We are already allowing students to move from district to charter schools. The same movement is happening now. Their message is a false narrative,” she said. “The reason I am doing this bill is because it adds another option for parents to choose the best educational option for their students.”
But LD 21 Democrats Chair William Bercu, a protester and Peoria resident, said public schools continue to face funding issues.
“You can send your child to private or parochial school, but it should not be a burden on the public,” he said.
Monday afternoon chants of, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Debbie Lesko’s got to go,” rang out in an affluent neighborhood of Peoria where the sights of children riding their bikes or scooters in the street are common.
Cars honked and signs exclaimed, “Save our schools,” and “Debbie Lesko gutting public schools,” to extend protesters’ message.
Ms. Lesko took issue with protesters’ decision to protest in 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 he didn’t necessarily disagree with the protesters message, but agreed with Sen. Lesko that they 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.”