Arizona voters handed a decisive defeat to a Republican-led effort to massively expand eligibility for school vouchers in the state.
Proposition 305 had become one of the most contentious ballot-box battles over school choice in the 2018 midterm elections.
But the ballot measure’s loss with Arizona voters is not necessarily a defeat for school choice advocates.
While the measure, if it had passed, would have expanded eligibility, it could have eventually constricted the overall number of students who receive vouchers.
For that reason, some prominent school choice lobbying and advocacy groups with deep ties to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the deep-pocketed brothers, Charles and David Koch, had abandoned the ballot initiative, even urging voters to reject it.
Currently, Arizona Empowerment Scholarships are restricted to select groups of students, such as those attending low-performing schools or those in foster care.
Republican state lawmakers passed a law in 2017 that would make all of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students eligible for the voucher-like program.
But that law also included a cap on the number of students who could receive vouchers at 30,000. That was fine with some school choice proponents when the bill was being passed because there would likely be the opportunity to lift the cap through later legislation.
But that was before the referendum.
Once voters weigh in on Prop. 305, some school choice advocates worried the cap would be permanent, eliminating any chances to expand the program beyond that cap.
As it stands now, only select groups of students—those living on an American Indian reservation, in foster care, from military families, attending low-performing schools, and students with special needs or with a sibling already in the program—can receive vouchers. But the program can continue to grow by about 0.5 percent of the public school population each year indefinitely. Currently, because of the restrictions on eligibility, the program never hits its cap.
This is why the American Federation for Children, a prominent school choice group that lobbied for the original law, reversed its stance on the expansion.
"[H]ad Prop 305 passed, Arizona’s Voter Protection Act would have made it nearly impossible to improve and expand the program legislatively in the future,” said John Schilling, President of the American Federation for Children, in a statement. “While passage of 305 would have made all K-12 students eligible, we can now look forward to removal of the current growth cap of 5,000 new students a year and funding for every ESA will remain significantly higher.”
The director of Americans for Prosperity—the influential conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers—told The Arizona Republic the group was not backing the ballot measure for similar reasons.
The challenge to Prop 305 was led by a grassroots group of parents and educators called Save Our Schools, which gathered enough signatures to stall the law passed in 2017 from going into effect until voters had the chance to weigh in directly. The American Federation for Children sued to scuttle the voter referendum but lost.
Save Our Schools also welcomed Tuesday’s outcome.
“Tonight’s election result should tell elected officials one thing: Enough,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, the group’s co-founder, in a statement. “Enough of selling out our nation’s future in service of some billionaires’ ideological pet project. Fund our schools. Pay our teachers. Respect our choice of strong public schools.”
Technically, the Empowerment Scholarships are not traditional school vouchers, but a hybrid voucher program called an education savings account. A percentage of state per-pupil dollars are put into special savings accounts parents can draw from to spend on a range of educational services. That includes private school tuition, like a traditional voucher, but also can include home-schooling supplies, tutors, college courses, or even therapy.
Making all students eligible for education savings accounts is sort of a Holy Grail to voucher proponents, given that ESAs give parents near-total control over how money is spent on their child’s education.
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, in 2015, was the first state to pass what’s been called a “universal” school choice law. But the program has been in a legal limbo since then and remains unfunded.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.