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Opinion

This is a Jump-Ball Moment for the Future of Arizona Public Schools | Opinion

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by Beth Lewis, Arizona Mirror
May 9, 2023

On Monday, legislative Republicans released a budget that utterly fails to prioritize public education and shows exactly where their priorities lie. Budget spreadsheets are crammed with line after line of pork-barrel spending for pet projects and a massive appropriation for ESA vouchers to subsidize private schools. 

For the first time in 14 years, Democrats — led by Gov. Katie Hobbs — have the opportunity to pass a budget that delivers on their promises to 1.1 million Arizona public school students by pumping the brakes on the off-the-rails universal voucher program. Like the Suns in their matchup against the Denver Nuggets, they’re tied 2-2 in the series, and this week’s must-win games decide the future of their franchise. 

The question is, will they use their power? Will they obstruct a bad budget to ensure the future of public education? Will they hold the line for our public school students, before it’s too late?

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In January, Hobbs proposed an executive budget that would have rolled back the legislature’s full expansion of vouchers passed last year. Instead, she is facing a budget proposal that ignores the skyrocketing cost to public education funding of hundreds of millions of dollars of unfettered, unregulated Empowerment Scholarship Account funding. 

Under this proposed budget, every child loses — from the 1.1 million public school students to the special needs students who still rely on ESA vouchers for therapies and services. Universally expanded vouchers have become an entitlement for the wealthy that, if not reined in now, will hamstring our state’s budget for years to come. 

In every survey and poll, Arizona voters overwhelmingly affirm that increasing teacher pay and supporting local public schools is vitally important to our state’s future. Arizona lawmakers must reject the whole budget and the K-12 portion of the budget in order to prevent vouchers from defunding our schools to the point of no return. 

With 500% growth this year and 1,000 new students claiming the subsidy every week, the ESA voucher program just surpassed the size of Mesa Unified School District, the largest school district in the state, at over 55,000 students. In a shocking failure of fiscal and educational integrity, voucher schools have zero financial oversight or academic accountability. 

It’s no wonder that for-profit corporations are blanketing the state with ads — there is massive money to be made by offering a canned curriculum in a strip mall “school,” out-of-state online schools, or private vendors with no required academic standards or measures to ensure child safety. 

We were right when we predicted universal ESA vouchers would balloon out of control. We’re right now in saying that, if voucher growth is not capped in this year’s budget, the state will see a swift and irreversible dismantling of public education. 

At a cost to Arizona taxpayers of over $500 million this year alone, vouchers will soon cost a budget-busting billion dollars at a time just when state revenues are expected to dry up. The prospect is terrifying for the 92% of Arizona families that rely on and choose local public schools. 

For Hobbs and legislative Democrats, this budget is a must-win game that will decide the future of public education in our state. Will they rise to the challenge and play full-court press, or will they fail to deliver on their campaign promises to public education? We’ll know soon.

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Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: info@azmirror.com. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.