AZ Lawmakers Propose Major ESA Voucher Reforms

AZ Lawmakers Propose Major ESA Voucher Reforms

In the first three weeks of the legislative session, Governor Katie Hobbs and various pro-public school lawmakers have introduced a wide array of ESA voucher reform bills that will keep students safe, raise standards for voucher school teachers, protect the rights of students with disabilities, and provide financial oversight and transparency for taxpayers. However, these sensible and child-centered bills face a difficult path in both the House and Senate, which are controlled by a slim Republican majority.

In collaboration with teachers, parents, and education advocates across the state, Gov. Hobbs introduced her ESA Voucher Reform proposal. Two bills that would implement this proposal were filed this week: SB1399, sponsored by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, and HB2705, a mirror bill sponsored by Rep. Lupe Contreras. These bills make much-needed accountability and transparency changes to Arizona’s ESA voucher program, including requiring background checks for anyone with unsupervised access to children, limiting the use of voucher funds for luxury purchases, notifying voucher parents of their legal rights, requiring voucher schools to report performance and financial metrics, and requiring the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) to budget appropriately for the voucher program. Public schools are held to all of these common-sense accountability measures. 

Besides the bills introduced by Senate Minority Leader Epstein and House Minority Leader Contreras, pro-public education lawmakers have also introduced a variety of bills aimed at other reforms: keeping Arizona students safe, raising standards for teachers at voucher schools, protecting the rights of students with disabilities, and establishing financial oversight and transparency for taxpayers.

Keep reading for an overview of key ESA voucher reform bills introduced thus far this legislative session.

In collaboration with teachers, parents, and education advocates across the state, Gov. Hobbs introduced her ESA Voucher Reform proposal. Two bills that would implement this proposal were filed this week: SB1399, sponsored by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, and HB2705, a mirror bill sponsored by Rep. Lupe Contreras. These bills make much-needed accountability and transparency changes to Arizona’s ESA voucher program, including requiring background checks for anyone with unsupervised access to children, limiting the use of voucher funds for luxury purchases, notifying voucher parents of their legal rights, requiring voucher schools to report performance and financial metrics, and requiring the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) to budget appropriately for the voucher program. Public schools are held to all of these common-sense accountability measures. 

Besides the bills introduced by Senate Minority Leader Epstein and House Minority Leader Contreras, pro-public education lawmakers have also introduced a variety of bills aimed at other reforms: keeping Arizona students safe, raising standards for teachers at voucher schools, protecting the rights of students with disabilities, and establishing financial oversight and transparency for taxpayers.

Keep reading for an overview of key ESA voucher reform bills introduced thus far this legislative session.

Keep Arizona Students Safe

Arizona families deserve to know whether their children are safe and learning. As written by voucher lobbyists, Arizona’s universal ESA voucher program leaves children incredibly vulnerable. With no safety requirements such as background checks or fingerprinting, the program is wide open for bad actors and abusers to take advantage of Arizona children and families. Under current law, the State Board of Education could revoke a teacher’s certification for improper conduct and that teacher could become a voucher tutor, vendor, or private school teacher the very next day — and no one would know. 

SB1356, sponsored by Sen. Christine Marsh, would prevent those bad actors by requiring ESA voucher-funded teachers who have unsupervised access to children to undergo background checks, similar to what happens in public district and charter schools. 

Bullying can affect all children regardless of where they attend school. SB1396, sponsored by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, would institute the same anti-bullying policies for ESA voucher schools that are already in place for public district and charter schools. 

Arizona families deserve to know whether their children are safe and learning. As written by voucher lobbyists, Arizona’s universal ESA voucher program leaves children incredibly vulnerable. With no safety requirements such as background checks or fingerprinting, the program is wide open for bad actors and abusers to take advantage of Arizona children and families. Under current law, the State Board of Education could revoke a teacher’s certification for improper conduct and that teacher could become a voucher tutor, vendor, or private school teacher the very next day — and no one would know. 

SB1356, sponsored by Sen. Christine Marsh, would prevent those bad actors by requiring ESA voucher-funded teachers who have unsupervised access to children to undergo background checks, similar to what happens in public district and charter schools. 

Bullying can affect all children regardless of where they attend school. SB1396, sponsored by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, would institute the same anti-bullying policies for ESA voucher schools that are already in place for public district and charter schools. 

Raise Voucher Teacher Standards

All children deserve qualified educators who are licensed to teach or have special degrees, skills, knowledge, or expertise that qualify them to provide instruction. Under former Supt. Kathy Hoffman, ESA voucher parents had this level of assurance and oversight. However, Supt. Horne slashed these robust teacher qualification standards to a mere high school diploma. Arizona families deserve qualified educators, and the state must ensure our tax dollars are used only for quality education.  

SB1351, sponsored by Sen. Catherine Miranda, would require teachers paid with voucher funds to have a bachelor’s degree, 3+ years of teaching experience, or subject matter expertise. Currently, voucher “teachers” must have only a high school diploma. Requiring voucher-funded private schools to require minimum education standards for classroom educators will ensure that all educators who teach core subjects are qualified to teach in their subject area. 

Protect the Rights of Students with Disabilities

Arizona parents have fundamental rights that are not honored under Arizona’s ESA voucher program. Parents should know whether a private school will meet their child’s needs — from special education students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans to English Language Learners’ specialized learning plans. Publicly funded private schools should be required to honor the IDEA Act, a federal law which protects individuals with disabilities. 

SB1352, sponsored by Sen. Catherine Miranda, would require the ADE to notify parents in writing of all the legal rights that parents and students relinquish when leaving the public school system and accepting an ESA voucher.

HB2462, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, would establish similar notification requirements, as well as set up a complaint process with the State Board of Education so schools are held accountable to voucher parents. 

HB2626, sponsored by Rep. Quantá Crews, would ban schools that accept ESA vouchers from requiring families to disclose their ESA enrollment status or funding amount as a condition of enrollment. This prevents private schools from price gouging or taking advantage of families. 

In order to make an informed choice, parents should have information about the private schools they choose for their children. SB1354, sponsored by Sen. Christine Marsh, and HB2687, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, would require schools that accept ESA vouchers to notify parents of what special education services they provide for students, and require them to honor students’ IEP and 504 plans unless the parents choose to waive those rights in writing. 

These bills will ensure the state can honor parents’ rights with the full force of the law.

Provide Financial Oversight and Transparency for Taxpayer Dollars

Arizona taxpayers deserve to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. With the unaccountable, fiscally irresponsible universal ESA voucher program passed by legislative Republicans, neither taxpayers nor the state has oversight of expenditures. Recent news reports reveal the astonishing lack of oversight by Superintendent Horne’s ADE. We must improve the transparency of the program and rein in the extravagant purchases being funded by our taxpayer dollars, like $500 Lego sets, in-home pianos, luxury ski trips, and cruise ship excursions. 

HB2563, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, and SB1485, sponsored by Sen. Eva Diaz, would prohibit purchases of luxury items using the ESA voucher program and require increased oversight of high-dollar items. 

HB2478, sponsored by Rep. Laura Terech, would require the Auditor General to perform an annual financial audit on schools that accept ESA vouchers. HB2624, sponsored by Rep. Mariana Sandoval, would hold voucher-funded private schools to the same standards as charter schools, directing the Auditor General to monitor them under a financial framework that will aim to ensure these voucher-funded private schools are viable organizations with strong fiscal management practices. It would also require the development of a publicly available dashboard to provide transparency for the financial performance of voucher-funded schools.

 SB1487, sponsored by Sen. Eva Diaz, would direct the Auditor General to conduct annual financial and compliance audits on the ESA voucher program and establish a financial transparency portal for voucher schools. It also requires the disclosure of the amount of ESA monies received that are spent in the classroom, similar to public schools.

To ensure proper oversight, HB2562, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, and SB1314, sponsored by Sen. Catherine Miranda, would establish a sunset date for the program every 8 years, comparable with all other publicly funded government agencies and programs, including the Departments of Child Safety, Corrections, and Transportation. This would place the program on the Auditor General’s audit schedule and require lawmakers to review it for proper functioning via a sunset committee of reference.

SB1486, sponsored by Sen. Eva Diaz, changes ESA voucher disbursements from quarterly to monthly, mirroring how Arizona public schools receive their funding. 

To increase transparency and proper budgeting, SB1353, sponsored by Sen. Christine Marsh, would require the ADE to provide the legislature with an estimate of how much funding it requires for ESA vouchers for the following fiscal year’s ESA voucher program by September 1 of each year.

Arizona taxpayers deserve to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. With the unaccountable, fiscally irresponsible universal ESA voucher program passed by legislative Republicans, neither taxpayers nor the state has oversight of expenditures. Recent news reports reveal the astonishing lack of oversight by Superintendent Horne’s ADE. We must improve the transparency of the program and rein in the extravagant purchases being funded by our taxpayer dollars, like $500 Lego sets, in-home pianos, luxury ski trips, and cruise ship excursions. 

HB2563, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, and SB1485, sponsored by Sen. Eva Diaz, would prohibit purchases of luxury items using the ESA voucher program and require increased oversight of high-dollar items. 

HB2478, sponsored by Rep. Laura Terech, would require the Auditor General to perform an annual financial audit on schools that accept ESA vouchers. HB2624, sponsored by Rep. Mariana Sandoval, would hold voucher-funded private schools to the same standards as charter schools, directing the Auditor General to monitor them under a financial framework that will aim to ensure these voucher-funded private schools are viable organizations with strong fiscal management practices. It would also require the development of a publicly available dashboard to provide transparency for the financial performance of voucher-funded schools.

 SB1487, sponsored by Sen. Eva Diaz, would direct the Auditor General to conduct annual financial and compliance audits on the ESA voucher program and establish a financial transparency portal for voucher schools. It also requires the disclosure of the amount of ESA monies received that are spent in the classroom, similar to public schools.

To ensure proper oversight, HB2562, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, and SB1314, sponsored by Sen. Catherine Miranda, would establish a sunset date for the program every 8 years, comparable with all other publicly funded government agencies and programs, including the Departments of Child Safety, Corrections, and Transportation. This would place the program on the Auditor General’s audit schedule and require lawmakers to review it for proper functioning via a sunset committee of reference.

SB1486, sponsored by Sen. Eva Diaz, changes ESA voucher disbursements from quarterly to monthly, mirroring how Arizona public schools receive their funding. 

To increase transparency and proper budgeting, SB1353, sponsored by Sen. Christine Marsh, would require the ADE to provide the legislature with an estimate of how much funding it requires for ESA vouchers for the following fiscal year’s ESA voucher program by September 1 of each year.

ESA Voucher Reform Is Urgently Necessary — And Also Not Enough

Even if every single one of these proposed reform measures were enacted, the accountability of the ESA voucher program would still be nowhere near the level of other state’s voucher programs — or of Arizona’s public schools.

If these regulations would “strangle” private schools, as opponents claim, what does that say about the bureaucratic red tape and onerous requirements these same lawmakers have forced upon our public schools? Basic safety requirements and minimum transparency guidelines do not pose a threat to any publicly funded institutions. The pushback to these reforms deepens our belief that public funds belong in public schools that are responsive and accountable to the public. 

Arizona voters and taxpayers agree: the ESA voucher grift must be reined in. These reforms are an important layer of protection for Arizona families and taxpayers and should be prioritized by any legislature that cares about children.

Even if every single one of these proposed reform measures were enacted, the accountability of the ESA voucher program would still be nowhere near the level of other state’s voucher programs — or of Arizona’s public schools.

If these regulations would “strangle” private schools, as opponents claim, what does that say about the bureaucratic red tape and onerous requirements these same lawmakers have forced upon our public schools? Basic safety requirements and minimum transparency guidelines do not pose a threat to any publicly funded institutions. The pushback to these reforms deepens our belief that public funds belong in public schools that are responsive and accountable to the public. 

Arizona voters and taxpayers agree: the ESA voucher grift must be reined in. These reforms are an important layer of protection for Arizona families and taxpayers and should be prioritized by any legislature that cares about children.

It is more important and easier than ever to make your voice heard. Our EASY-to-use email tool will help you urge your lawmakers to support Governor Hobbs’ common-sense, responsible plan to protect students and provide reasonable accountability and transparency for taxpayers.

Email your lawmakers now: bit.ly/VoucherReform

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