Voters will decide today whether to approve or overturn a massive expansion of Arizona’s school voucher program that would open the program up to any public school student.
The outcome of the vote on Proposition 305 will have big implications for the school-choice movement in Arizona and nationally, as the state has long been ground zero for the conservative issue and Republican leaders have crowned the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion as a national example to follow.
The stakes are equally high for the mostly grassroots group of parents who launched the referendum by obtaining more than 111,000 signatures to put it on the ballot.
If Prop. 305 fails, as Save Our Schools Arizona wants it to, the grassroots group will have successfully defeated the state’s political elite by beating back their voucher measure at the ballot box.
If the referendum passes, Save Our Schools’ effort will have had the opposite effect of what it intended — reaffirming and likely voter-protecting the expansion, meaning it can’t be changed without a super-majority of the Legislature.
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If approved, the ESA expansion would allow all 1.1 million Arizona public school students to use public money to go to private school. The number of students receiving the funds would be capped at 30,000.
Parents receive 90 percent of the funding that would have otherwise gone to their local public school districts. The voucher money, loaded on debit cards, is intended to cover specific education expenses such as private or religious-school tuition, home-school expenses and education-related therapies.
If approved, the expansion would make the program about six times larger — it now serves about 5,600 students at a cost of about $62 million.
If Prop. 305 fails, the law ESA rules would stay as they are now, growing each year by about 0.5 percent of the total 1.1 million public school population, which is now about 5,500 students. That means the cap for next year would be about 9,500 students, said Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat.
However, the program has never reached the cap because only students in six categories qualify for ESAs: students with special needs, attending D- or F-rated schools, living on an Indian reservation, from military families, in foster-care and siblings of students in the ESA program.
Prop. 305 was launched after investigations into the program by The Arizona Republic showed students were using the ESA program to leave wealthier and better performing schools and that the program was plagued by lax oversight and misspending.
Poll data showed that voters were deeply confused by the ballot language of the measure. Voters who want to expand the program to have more school vouchers should vote “yes”, voters who don’t want to expand the ESA program should vote “no”.
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