A yearslong effort by school choice advocates to expand school vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona schoolchildren was expected to come to a head Thursday as the Legislature moves to debate bills setting in place a planned four-year phase-in of the proposal.
The expansion pushed in the Senate by Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko and companion House legislation has been stalled for nearly two months as opposition from a handful of GOP lawmakers and all Democrats left the measure short of votes.
Scheduling debate is often but not always a sign that backers believe they have secured the needed votes.
A cap on the program that expires after 2019 limits current enrollment to about 5,500 students. That cap can grow each year by a similar number until the cap expires.
Since the initial program was adopted in 2011, it has expanded to cover about a third of all students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Indian reservations, foster children and children of military members. Despite those increases, the program has remained relatively small, but expanding it to all students would allow parents who now send their children to private schools to eventually use the program.
The state pays parent 90 percent of the money paid to a public or charter school to use for private school tuition or other education costs.
Republicans control 17 of 30 Senate seats and losing just two GOP votes would doom the measure. Sen. Kate Brophy McGee is opposed, and Sen. Bob Worsley of Mesa has been the key 16th vote. He has said he could not back the current proposal without substantial changes.
House Republican support is also tenuous, with Rep. Heather Carter strongly opposed and at least five other moderate GOP caucus members on the fence.
Lesko said earlier this week that she’s very hopeful the measures can pass. Gov. Doug Ducey said at a January school choice event that he’ll continue to be an advocate for using state tax money for charter and private schools and home-schooling. That’s despite low funding for public schools in the state.
“What I want a parent to be able to do is send a child to a school of their choice, and when we have opportunities to improve on that we’re going to do that,” Ducey said at the time.
Public education advocates worry the voucher expansion would siphon money from public schools, which are at or near the bottom in state per-student spending measures nationwide.
Ducey proposed a 2 percent raise over five years in his budget, a figure that has been widely panned by education advocates.
“I was really surprised to hear that the governor was making this a priority,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, which represents public school teachers. “I don’t remember this as part of state of the state address. He called for teacher raises.”