Voucher Vote Creates Dilemma For School-Choice Supporters

Jul 23, 2018

In this April 6, 2017, file photo, Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko urges fellow lawmakers to back a massive school voucher expansion bill she sponsored, in the Senate chambers in Phoenix. School-choice supporters won legislative passage of a 2017 law to expand Arizona's voucher program but some now aren't sure whether they want voters to approve or reject a referendum that will decide the law's fate.
Credit (AP Photo/Bob Christie, File)

School-choice supporters won legislative passage of a 2017 law to expand Arizona's voucher program, but some now aren't sure whether they want the law's fate in the hands of a voters' referendum.

The expansion supporters' unease stems from a 20-year-old state constitutional provision under which voter approval of the expansion law apparently would virtually lock in its provisions, including a 30,000-student enrollment cap, the Arizona Capitol Times reported .

"If Prop. 305 passes, it could hinder our ability to make crucial improvements to the ESA (Empower Scholarship Accounts) program," said Kim Martinez, a spokeswoman for the pro-voucher American Federation for Children.

"It is entirely possible that a 'no' vote might give more children the opportunity to use an ESA than a 'yes' vote," she said.

Arizona has had vouchers since 2011, when they were originally designated for children with special needs.

A "yes" on Proposition 305 would keep Senate Bill 1431, the expansion of ESAs, in place as approved by the Legislature in 2017.

The bill sought to expand eligibility to all public school students to use public money to attend private or religious schools, and would increase the cap on enrollment to 30,000 students by the 2022-2023 school year.

Arizona has roughly 1 million public school students, and school choice advocates want to make each one eligible to receive a voucher.

But if the cap of 30,000 students becomes voter-protected, expanding it in the future will be a challenge.

To amend a voter-protected program, legislators must pass an amendment with a three-fourths vote and whatever change they make must further the intent of the original measure.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said lawmakers rarely pass legislation intending it to be "the end all, be all final product." And if he and many of his colleagues could go back, they would likely make a few tweaks to the bill, knowing now that it could soon be set in stone.

Though he voted for the bill in 2017, Mesnard said he's among Republicans and school-choice advocates who are undecided on how he'll vote on Proposition 305 because its success at the ballot box might mean voter protection.

Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots group responsible for Proposition 305, recognizes that ESA advocates have not actually changed their minds about the broader issue.

"This is just one milestone in what I think everyone has to realize is a long battle," said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona.