Federal

Vouchers Expansion Battle Will Be Fought at Arizona Polls

By Arianna Prothero — October 30, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Arizona voters are poised to decide whether to dramatically expand eligibility for vouchers in what has become one of the most contentious ballot-box battles over school choice in the 2018 midterm elections.

The ballot measure—called Proposition 305—would allow all public school students in the state to apply for Arizona Empowerment Scholarships, a program currently restricted to select groups of students, such as those attending low-performing schools or those in foster care.

The push to make all of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students eligible for vouchers has been both contentious and confounding. It started as legislation passed by Republican state lawmakers in 2017 and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who is running for re-election.

The new law, however, was 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 to 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. However, there is a large share of voters who remain undecided, and the referendum’s fate is still up in the air.

A Catch-22

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.

Making all students eligible for education savings accounts is critical to school choice proponents, given that ESAs give parents near-total control over how money is spent on their child’s education.

But while the law would expand the program’s eligibility, the actual number of students who could receive a scholarship would be capped at 30,000. That was fine with some school choice proponents when the legislation 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 worry a cap would be permanent.

It’s created a Catch-22 for school choice advocates, where keeping the expansion—a yes vote—would actually mean fewer students overall can get vouchers even though more types of students would be eligible. This is why the American Federation for Children, a prominent school choice group that lobbied for the original law, has reversed its stance on it.

"[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 AFC said in a statement, listing off the types of students who are currently eligible for the education savings accounts program and will remain so even if the latest expansion effort fails. “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.”

The director of Americans for Prosperity—the influential conservative advocacy group funded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch—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, 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.

What the Polls Say

While the bill to expand vouchers was 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.

In interviews with three voters who were part of The Arizona Republic’s poll, all of them changed their stances on the ballot measure after a reporter explained it.

A Democrat and an independent voter, switched to no, while the Republican voter changed to a yes vote for the measure. In national polling on vouchers, rank-and-file Democrats seem to be more supportive of vouchers than party leadership appears to be, according to an annual survey 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.

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Vouchers Expansion Battle Will Be Fought at Arizona Polls

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

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

Federal Dept. of Ed., Florida Continue to Battle Over Ban on School Mask Mandates
Federal officials say they’ll intervene if the Florida Dept. of Ed. goes ahead with sanctions on districts with mask mandates.
Ana Ceballos, Miami Herald
2 min read
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal National School Board Group's Apology for 'Domestic Terrorism' Letter May Not Quell Uproar
The National School Boards Association voices "regret" for how it sought federal aid to address threats and harassment of school officials.
4 min read
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove parent Chris Mink of Apopka from an emergency meeting of the Seminole County School Board in Sanford, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Mink, the parent of a Bear Lake Elementary School student, opposes a call for mask mandates for Seminole schools and was escorted out for shouting during the standing-room only meeting.
Deputies remove a parent from an emergency meeting of the Seminole County School Board in Sanford, Fla., after the parent, who opposes a call for mask mandates for Seminole schools, shouts during the standing-room only meeting.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
Federal 'A Snitch Line on Parents.' GOP Reps Grill AG Over Response to Threats on School Officials
Attorney General Merrick Garland said his effort is meant to address violent threats against school boards, not to stifle parents' dissent.
5 min read
LEFT: Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. RIGHT: Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, questions Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the U.S. Department of Justice on Capitol Hill on Thursday, questioned by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, right, among others.
Greg Nash via AP, Andrew Harnik/AP
Federal School Boards, 'Domestic Terrorism,' and Free Speech: Inside the Debate
From critical race theory to COVID policy, the heat on schools has raised issues involving free speech and the safety of public officials.
13 min read
Brenda Stephens, a school board member with Orange County Public Schools in Hillsborough, N.C. has purchased a weapon and taken a concealed carry class over concerns for her personal safety.
Brenda Stephens, a school board member in Hillsborough, N.C., says board members face threats and bullying, an atmosphere far different from what she's encountered in years of board service.
Kate Medley for Education Week