PHOENIX — A school voucher program announced by Gov. Doug Ducey last month is seeing more applications coming in than money currently earmarked for the program can fund.
The grants are for families who don’t agree with certain COVID protocols at their children’s public schools.
Applications coming in
Ducey announced the COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit program in mid-August. Ducey allocated $10 million from federal COVID-19 relief money to fund $7,000 grants for families with kids in public schools who are requiring masks or requiring different quarantine protocols for unvaccinated students than vaccinated students.
The grants can be used for tuition, transportation, childcare and tutoring for families who make less than 350% of the federal income poverty level. That would mean families of four making at or less than $92,750 qualify based on information from the Centers for Medicaid and CHIP Services.
A spokesperson for the Governor’s office tells 12 News so far 497 applications have been submitted. So far, a total of 74 have been awarded or are ready to be awarded. An additional 2,472 applications have been started. The average total income of people applying is $46,147 according to the spokesperson.
If all of the applications were to be awarded, the money would be more than currently earmarked for the program.
“The message seems pretty clear that Arizona families want educational choice,” C.J. Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesperson, said.
Just 10 days into the 2021-2022 school year, Elizabeth Thompson said her son was home, quarantined after he was determined to have been exposed to COVID-19 at his public school.
“He was sitting there at home trying to do all these assignments without having any real instruction,” Thompson said. “That was very difficult and frustrating for him.”
Thompson said her son’s district then started requiring masks, which she believes is a personal choice, right about the time Ducey announced the school voucher program.
“I was super excited, so I went ahead and applied,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s application is currently being reviewed, however, she’s already moved her son to a different school. One, she said, that doesn’t require masks at all and doesn’t require steps for students to quarantine.
“The district that my son was in, they’re just really not going to take us seriously until we start pulling funds, and so that’s why we did this big move, this big statement, because money talks,” Thompson said.
Regardless of if her application is approved or not, Thompson said she’d still pay the tuition to keep her son at the school he’s at now.
“Even if this doesn’t come through I’ll find a way to pay for it because that’s how important I feel it is for my son to get this in-person instruction, to be able to communicate and learn,” Thompson said.
School vouchers are built upon the idea of allowing parents to redirect money that would normally go to fund their child’s public school education, to fund private school tuition or other costs.
Beth Lewis, who’s a teacher, parent and director for Save Our Schools Arizona, a grassroots public education advocacy group, said Ducey’s new program was "no surprise."
“The Governor’s new program is obviously a very craven use of taxpayer dollars that were intended to be used to keep children safe,” Lewis said.
Arizona’s law banning mask mandates and vaccination in schools does not go into effect until Sept. 29, which has led some districts to adopt mask requirements in the meantime.
Lewis said the voucher program is taking federal money away from schools to deal with COVID.
“We are taking money away from our low-income students who need COVID protections in place in our schools and giving them to private academies,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Three years ago, Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected an expansion that would have made all students eligible for vouchers, formally called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
“Every legislative session we see the Governor and the legislature try to expand these,” Lewis said.
Lewis believes vouchers will continue to be expanded.
“We’re seeing a program that is coming from federal taxpayer dollars but we’re sure to see some sort of push next legislative session to take more state taxpayer dollars to go to these unaccountable programs,” Lewis said.
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