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Voters to decide on school voucher program expansion in November

Voters will decide whether to expand Arizona's school voucher program this November, spurring promoters and challengers to vie for community support for or against Proposition 305.

Expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, also called ESAs, garnered support a year ago from Republican legislators in the state House and Senate before it was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey.

When anti-voucher expansion group Save Our Schools collected enough signatures to place a statewide referendum on the November ballots, it paused the ESA expansion from going into effect until voters have their say on Prop 305. They were challenged by special interest groups, including The American Federation for Children, founded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Voting yes on Prop 305 will uphold the expanded ESA law, making vouchers available for up to 30,000 recipients by 2023, regardless of income level or need. ESAs, commonly referred to as school vouchers, were intended since 2011 to provide guardians of students with disabilities learning alternatives to public instruction with tax money from the department of education.

A later expansion included military and foster children, reservation residents and students attending poor performing schools.

Parents can use the funds to pay for their child's educational needs, such as home-school supplies and private or parochial tuition. The 3,500 children enrolled for the 2017-18 academic year spent an estimated $31.1 million on private school expenses, learning materials and educational services, based on Arizona Department of Education records.

Although pro-expansion lawmakers and special interest groups believe this legislation gives every child an equal opportunity to seek other education options that best suits their needs, fully getting rid of eligibility barriers concerns Red for Ed supporters. They fear the additional competition will diminish voucher-accessibility for children who have disabilities.

Save Our Schools spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said that if the ESA expansion goes through, "kids with special needs will be pushed to the back of the line."

"Every dollar the ESA program takes out has an inflated negative impact on public schools because they're already underfunded," Penich-Thacker said. "The voucher expansion just amplifies that problem."

Rep. Todd Clodfelter was one of four Republicans who voted against the expansion in April 2017. He doesn't see anything wrong with school choice. He said he's for it, just not in the way his fellow party members proposed.

"Taking money out of the [public education] fund and applying it to unsupervised expenditures robs the system," he said.

Rep. Mark Finchem voted for the ESA expansion. He doesn't see ESAs as taking from public education because he said it's about taxpayer money following the children to whatever type of education their parents deem best.

"We are delivering a woefully inadequate education product to prepare kids for life after school," he said. "Parents are voting with their wallets, so to speak, and they're looking for an alternative quality education."

He added that children with special needs and those who attend failing schools should still be prioritized when it comes to receiving scholarships. The bill doesn't mention prioritizing these children other than those who are already in the program.

Finchem also wishes there wasn't a cap at 30,000 kids, but said it's better to allow some that choice rather than none.

The Invest in Education Act, born of the Red for Ed movement, could also make its way onto Arizona ballots this November. Advocates say combined with Ducey's teacher pay raise plan, this initiative would restore public school funding to pre-recession levels by raising top-earners' income taxes.

The ballot measure is currently pending a 20-day-verification process in the capitol after volunteer organizers submitted approximately 270,000 signatures on Thursday, July 5.

Tori Tom is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Weekly intern. Staff writer Danyelle Khmara contributed to this report.