School voucher flap previews coming legislative debate

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PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Department of Education took heat from school-choice advocates last week after denying the stepchild of a soldier a state-funded voucher to pay for private-school tuition, and then reversing course.

The uproar was a repeat of a similar fight in May over children from the Navajo Nation, and a preview of a contentious debate over the shape of the voucher program that's likely to emerge in the Legislature next year.

The latest dust-up, like the one in May, began with a video produced by American Federation for Children, which supports the voucher program that covers private education costs for children who meet certain criteria, such as being Native American, having a parent in the military or being assigned to a poorly rated public school.

The video included interviews with two parents who applied for a voucher for their son, citing his stepmother's military service. They blasted the Education Department for denying the request because she's not the child's biological mother. Republican lawmakers quickly seized on the issue, criticizing the agency and Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.

Hoffman said the decision was reversed before the video was released, but the letter didn't reach the family.

It was the second bitter and public feud between Hoffman and the American Federation for Children, which released a similar video in May showing families from the Navajo Nation that had been using their vouchers at a religious school in New Mexico, which violates a state law for the money to be spent at Arizona schools. Lawmakers overwhelmingly backed legislation to granting a one-year exemption for about seven Navajo children, but not allowing any new students to use vouchers out of state.

In signing the bill, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said he wanted more, and signaled that he'll urge lawmakers next year to let more children from the Navajo Nation use vouchers in New Mexico.

"I look forward to working with the Legislature to pass a permanent fix that will provide certainty and stability to these children, and for all of the Arizona children living in the Navajo Nation as they seek the appropriate educational setting and delivery necessary for their individual learning needs," Ducey wrote in a letter explaining his decision to sign the bill.

Hoffman sees that as an expansion of the voucher program, which voters overwhelmingly rejected last year. She said the video is an attack from a special interest group.

"We were really proud of the bipartisan solution we came up with this last session, and I think that's where we need to leave it," Hoffman said.

Lawmakers should be focused on lifting up all struggling schools, she said.

Steve Smith, Arizona director for the American Federation for Children, said his group will keep making videos that pressure Hoffman.

"I just wish there'd be more transparency," Smith said. "Frankly, you wouldn't need that if there wasn't this quick to deny atmosphere that was present."

The voucher program has been a flashpoint in Arizona politics for years. It started in 2011 as a small program for disabled children and has been repeatedly expanded to cover more students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Native American reservations, foster children and children of military members.

Lawmakers in 2017 enacted the nation's most ambitious expansion of private school vouchers, making them available to every student in the state, with a cap of 30,000 slots. A group of parents collected enough signatures to put the expansion on hold until voters could weigh in. They soundly rejected it in the 2018 election and elected Hoffman, a voucher skeptic and the first Democrat to hold the superintendent position in nearly 25 years.


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