Arizona voters in November will weigh in on whether to massively expand eligibility for vouchers in what has become one of the most contentious ballot-box battles over school choice in the 2018 midterm elections.
It’s called Proposition 305. And it would allow all public school students in the state to apply for Arizona Empowerment Scholarships, a program which is currently restricted to a few select groups of students, such as those attending failing schools or those in foster care.
The push to make 1.1 million of Arizona’s school children eligible for vouchers has been both contentious and confounding.
It started as legislation passed by Republican state lawmakers in 2017 and signed into law by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who is running for re-election.
The new law, however, was soon challenged by a grassroots group of parents and educators called Save Our Schools, which gathered enough signatures to stall it from going into effect and giving voters the chance weigh in directly. A national school choice advocacy group with deep ties to U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos sued to scuttle the voter referendum but lost.
But as Nov. 6 draws closer, some of the same national advocacy groups that lobbied for expanding voucher eligibility in Arizona have all but abandoned defending it in the upcoming referendum. Meanwhile, recent polling shows that a slim majority of Democratic voters say they plan to vote to expand vouchers while Republicans are less enthusiastic—stances which run completely counter to those taken by their elected state representatives. There are some questions, however, about whether rank-and-file voters are interpreting the ballot language correctly.
At the moment it appears the vote to keep the voucher expansion has a slight edge over the effort to undo it. However, there is a large share of voters that remain undecided, and the fate of the referendum is still very much up in the air.
Why National Advocates Are Not Defending the Voucher Expansion
Technically, the Empowerment Scholarships are not traditional school vouchers, but a hybrid voucher program called an education savings account. State per pupil dollars are put into special savings accounts parents can draw from to spend on educational services beyond just tuition at private schools, as one would with a voucher. This can include home-schooling supplies, tutors, college courses, or even therapy.
It’s hard to understate how important universal eligibility for education savings accounts is to school choice proponents. It sounds wonky, but in many ways, it is the fullest and truest realization of school choice ideals: near total parental control and customization.
But while the law would expand the program’s eligibility, the actual number of students who can receive a scholarship would be capped at 30,000. Once voters weigh in on Prop. 305, some school choice advocates worry that cap will be set in stone and can’t be lifted through later legislation.
It’s created a Catch-22 for school choice advocates, which is captured in this statement from the American Federation for Children, a prominent school choice group that lobbied for the original law.
"[I]f the ‘No’ vote wins, more than 250,000 children from the lowest-performing schools, military families, foster care, Native American reservations, or special needs students, would have access to an ESA. The American Federation for Children supports giving the maximum number of families access to the education that best fits their child’s needs, so on balance, a ‘No’ vote is the best choice for Arizona voters,” AFC said in a statement.
The director of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity also told The Arizona Republic the group was not backing the ballot measure for similar reasons.
Arizona is the second state to attempt to expand eligibility for education savings accounts to include all public-school students, and it’s also the second state in the last few years to have this effort stall.
Nevada was the first state to pass what has been termed a “universal” school choice law in 2015 under the then-Republican controlled legislature. But the program has been in a legal limbo since then and remains unfunded.
What the Polls Say
While the bill to expand vouchers was also opposed by Democratic lawmakers in Arizona, and vouchers are generally opposed by liberal politicians nationally, the expansion effort seems to be drawing a surprising amount of support from likely Democratic voters.
Fifty-one percent of Democrats say they would vote to expand the voucher program, but only 29 percent of Republicans say they would do so, according to a recent poll by Suffolk University and The Arizona Republic.
All told, 41 percent of registered voters support expanding vouchers and 32 percent oppose, while 27 percent were still undecided.
However, voters may be confused by the ballot language, which doesn’t use the word voucher.
The Arizona Republic reached out to three voters—one Republican, who said he would vote no, and one Democrat and one Independent who said they planned to vote yes on the referendum. After reporters explained what the ballot measure would do, all three voters flipped their stances on Prop. 305.
This anecdote from a recent Arizona Republic story on the poll numbers is particularly illuminating:
Among them was Dave Hess, a 55-year-old Democrat and public education supporter from a family of teachers—a constituency that tends to oppose voucher expansion—who told the pollster he would vote yes based on the ballot language. "But after hearing the ballot measure described by a reporter he changed his stance. "'I think I would probably change that to no," said Hess, who works at Oak Creek Brewery in Sedona. "I was just going off of what the guy was reading to me ... if it's a voucher program I would vote no.'"
While one shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions from three anecdotes, some of this does track with national polling.
On the one hand, rank-and-file Democrats seem to be more supportive of vouchers than their party’s leadership appears to be, according to annual polling by Education Next. And there is some polling to suggest that using the word voucher has an effect on people’s attitudes toward the policy.
According to the 2018 annual Education Next survey, support for vouchers for all families rose by 9 percentage points from last year, from 45 to 54 percent. But that’s only if the pollsters didn’t use the word voucher. When they did, support for universal vouchers dropped by 10 percentage points.
There was no change, however, in the amount of support survey participants registered for vouchers for low-income students only, regardless of whether the word voucher was used.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.