Sunday, May 28, 2023

House GOP reforms school funding, extends vouchers

PHOENIX ( Associated Press) — Republican leaders in the Arizona House introduced legislation Tuesday that would substantially change the state’s school funding formula, adding nearly $200 million in new annual funding for K-12 schools and a universal private school Voucher system will be created.

But the proposal backed by GOP majority leader Ben Toma doesn’t satisfy Republican Representative Michelle Udall, who has refused to support the expansion of school vouchers without major new accountability rules like testing.

With a majority of only one vote in each house, Republicans need unanimous support from their caucuses if no Democrats sign.

No Democrat currently supports the expansion of the current voucher program, formally called the Empowerment Scholarship Account. They point to the 2018 election where two-thirds of Arizona voters rejected universal school vouchers.

A bigger issue is a poison pill, said Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona – a conditional act that says schools will not receive new funding until the voucher bill is passed and goes into effect .

That means a voter referendum, as his group got on the 2018 ballot, would put new school funding at risk.

“As someone who has exercised his constitutional right to referendum, I think it is very disgusting,” Lewis said. “And as a parent who wants that funding for their kids that’s really not okay.”

Udal said the proposal requires more stringent testing and reporting requirements for private school students to receive public funding, or much larger amounts for K-12 public schools.

The current proposal includes a one-time investment of $200 million in a fund that helps fund school operations and pay teacher salaries. $200 million is ongoing funding that will be divided between schools with higher rates of low-income students, to increase spending on English language learners, and a fund that promotes funding for all traditional and charter schools. This is on top of new school spending already in a budget deal that is currently on hold.

“At the end of the day I’m not going to be able to vote on the bill unless I feel like it’s doing what’s best for as many students as possible,” Udall said.

She said she remains in ongoing talks with Toma and others on the proposal.

The proposals are set for hearing on Wednesday at the House Ways and Means Committee. Complicated new school funding and voucher expansion bills were introduced late Tuesday.

Breaking the impasse over school funding and voucher bills are just two of the major issues facing lawmakers in the final weeks of the session.

They need to get the budget by June 30 or the shutdown of state services will come into effect. And lawmakers have been stuck without a deal for more than two months as a Senate Republican, Paul Boyer, is calling for a major new investment in K-12 schools before rolling back the budget deal.

He said on Tuesday he had not been told about the package of Toma’s bills.

Boyer is pushing for a “grand bargain” that would include much of the $900 million in voter-approved funding that Proposition 208 would have provided if the Arizona Supreme Court had not declared it unconstitutional., It has also been pushing for a major expansion of the voucher program since last year.

But some Senate Republicans have publicly opposed any additional school funding.

Udall said last week she wants a huge new investment in K-12 schools, the $900 million Boyer wants, “a huge chunk.”

Cash has flooded the state, which is sitting on an unprecedented surplus of more than $5.3 billion. It also accounts for $1.7 billion in income tax cuts enacted by the Legislature on the Unified Democratic Opposition last year.

Actual tax cuts were withheld because opponents gathered enough signatures to block them until voters could accept or reject them in November. But in April the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that voters could not block them, However, the court has not explained its reasoning, and they are now in effect.

The current budget is $12.8 billion, and Republican House and Senate leaders have an agreement to spend $15.1 billion in the next budget year and add to current year’s spending.

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Desk
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