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Arizona school choice expansion debate continues

Save Our Schools effort could stop it in its tracks
Arizona schools for deaf, blind feel effects of teacher shortage
Posted at 4:21 AM, Sep 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-22 15:01:21-04

PHOENIX — Arizona's school choice expansion law is supposed to go into effect Saturday, but an effort by the group Save Our Schools could stop it in its tracks.

Billed as "the nation's most expansive school choice initiative," Governor Doug Ducey signed HB 2853 into law last month, despite Arizona voters rejecting a similar law when it was on the ballot in 2018.

"It's a really disturbing use of taxpayer dollars and a really disrespectful action for the legislation to discard the will of our voters," explained Beth Lewis, Director of the nonprofit Save Our Schools, which opposes the expansion.

Save Our Schools is behind a citizens' referendum to stop the newly signed law in its tracks. The group needs to collect more than 118,000 signatures and turn them in to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office by 3 p.m. Friday.

"For all of us teachers and parents, it's really frustrating to see how far we've had to fight for education, just basic funding and resources, and teacher pay when obviously the public supports that and the legislature and the Governor do not. It feels like fighting for the bare minimum when we should really be fighting to be competitive with other states. Our kids deserve so much more," stated Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools.

Under the expansion, any K-12 student in Arizona, who opts out of public school, would get roughly $7,000 to use each year for private school tuition, home education, tutors, or any other approved educational expense.

"This action takes directly from kids in public school. And that's highway robbery. That's not school choice." said Lewis.

At the state capitol this week, Lewis told us that she's concerned about the expansion for a number of reasons, including that the new law has no income cap, meaning wealthy families and low-income families would get the same amounts from the state.

Lewis is also concerned that the options included in the expansion wouldn't have as much oversight as a typical public school setting.

Nick Ciletti: What would you say to the parents who say they know what's best for their child and they should have as many options as they'd like?

Beth Lewis: One of the big things is accountability and taxpayers want to make sure they know what's happening.

Under the current law for the education scholarship account or ESA, only certain groups qualify, including students with special needs, military families, students living on reservations, foster families, and students from "D" or "F" rated schools. The expansion law would change it so that all students qualify.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, 23% of Arizona's 1.1 million public school students fall into the categories that qualify under the law that's currently in place.

"We have been able to take that control back and do what's best for our kids when they need it and how they need it," said Jenny Clark, a member of the Arizona State Board of Education and founder of the nonprofit Love Your School, a group who says its mission is to help families explore all their options, including ESAs.

Clark says ESAs have been her family's lifeline.

"My two oldest boys were diagnosed with dyslexia two years ago and I never imagined that they would need anything other than what I had growing up but unfortunately that wasn't the case," said Clark.

She says her boys needed a kind of dyslexia remediation that was not offered at their public school at the time. Currently, the boys are home educated and also use tutors, therapists, and a specialized curriculum which the ESA helps pay for.

She says navigating her boys' special education experience in their old school was difficult, and so her hope is that LoveYourSchool.org helps parents navigate what can sometimes be a confusing process.

"Our family is really a testimony of evaluating each year what does our family need?" Clark added.

Nick Ciletti: What do you say to parents groups who say this [ESA program] is taking money away from districts who really need it? What's your response to that?

Jenny Clark: I would say the education dollars are there for the education of children, so as a taxpayer or a parent, I would say every family should have equal access to the environment that works for them.

For more information on Love Your School, head to LoveYourSchool.org.

For more information on Save Our Schools, head to SOSArizona.org.