School Choice & Charters

Expansion of School Vouchers Gets Trounced in Arizona

By Arianna Prothero — November 07, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See all 2018 education-related election results here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Virtual Charters in Hot Water Again. Accusations of Fraud Prompt $150M Lawsuit
Indiana officials seek to recoup more than $150 million they say was either wrongly obtained or misspent by a consortium of virtual schools.
Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star
2 min read
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis. Rokita filed a lawsuit against a group of online charter schools accused of defrauding the state out of millions of dollars Thursday, July 8, 2021.
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis.
Darron Cummings/AP
School Choice & Charters How the Pandemic Helped Fuel the Private School Choice Movement
State lawmakers got a new talking point as they pushed to create and expand programs to send students to private schools.
8 min read
Collage showing two boys in classroom during pandemic wearing masks with cropped photo of feet and arrows going in different directions.
Collage by Gina Tomko/EducationWeek (Images: Getty)
School Choice & Charters Opinion Taking Stock After 30 Years of Charter Schools
Rick Hess speaks with Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, on charter schools turning 30.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters In Fight Over Millions of Dollars for Charter Schools, a Marijuana Tax May Bring Peace
The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted unanimously to rescind a polarizing lawsuit settlement, pending certain stipulations.
Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman
3 min read
Money bills cash funds close up Getty