ARIZONA, USA — Arizona Democrats said they feel “held hostage” by a new proposal from Republican leaders that would boost funding to public schools but simultaneously require the passage of universal private school vouchers.
The two bills surrounding the proposal passed 6-4 along party lines in the Arizona House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The bills are sponsored by House Republican Majority Leader Ben Toma of Peoria.
One of the bills would add $200 million in annual funding to the state budget and another $200 million of one-time spending for classroom maintenance. But the additional dollars would not begin flowing to schools for another year, and only if the second bill becomes law as well.
That bill, a universal voucher expansion, would allow any family in the state to qualify for a private school voucher using public dollars.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected a universal voucher proposal 65% to 35% in 2018.
Public education advocates said the voucher plan amounts to a subsidy for wealthy families who already send their kids to private schools and they say such a program would deprive the public education system of much-needed funds.
“There’s no accountability for fiscal spending or student achievement,” said Jill Humpherys, a Gilbert School Board Member who spoke during public comment period against universal vouchers.
Humpherys pointed out that public school districts are regulated by the state and overseen by elected school boards to ensure tax money is spent appropriately. Private schools have wide discretion over their budgets.
Toma said the idea of private school vouchers is a way to give families more options for learning and places the needs of parents first.
Arizona lawmakers only have about 15 days to figure out how much more they are going to fund public schools, given a $5 billion state surplus.
A new analysis provided to the Arizona School Board Association suggests Arizona’s K-12 per-pupil spending remains at two-thirds of the national average. Arizona ranks near the bottom nationally in teacher salaries and classroom size.
Arizona superintendents are asking for at least $550 million in new annual funding and $450 million in one-time funds for next year.
Boyer said he will not vote for a bill that allows universal vouchers. He represents a critical vote in the Senate, which only has a one-vote majority.
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