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Arizona Legislature's GOP members OK school vouchers for all

Thousands of protesters march around the Arizona Capitol after the Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision Friday, June 24, 2022, in Phoenix. The Supreme Court on Friday stripped away women’s constitutional protections for abortion, a fundamental and deeply personal change for Americans' lives after nearly a half-century under Roe v. Wade. The court’s overturning of the landmark court ruling is likely to lead to abortion bans in roughly half the states. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — Republican Arizona lawmakers approved a massive expansion of the private school voucher system Friday night as the Legislature pushed closer to ending the 2022 legislative session.

The school vouchers measure passed as thousands of demonstrators rallied outside the Capitol to protest or support the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that women do not have a constitutional right to abortion. At one point, Senate President Karen Fann rushed debate on the voucher measure to a close, saying the protest posed a security threat.

Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said senators and staff were rushed to the basement, although House members stayed on the floor of their chamber. Senators returned to the floor in less than 20 minutes.

Another top measure appeared close to being approved, this time with bipartisan support: A major plan to shore up water supplies. The Senate gave initial approval to a $1 billion plan to increase supplies after adding another $200 million for water conservation efforts.

Senate Republicans pushed though the voucher program that already passed the House. It allows every student in Arizona to take public money to attend private schools, even the nearly 60,000 whose parents are already paying for that instruction.

The vote came after GOP leaders voted to block Democrats from debating or proposing changes to the voucher bill, touching off a heated procedural fight that left Democrats fuming.

The House and Senate voted on dozens of other bills, most of them uncontroversial measures that passed with bipartisan majorities.

The House briefly voted down a measure allowing the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry to continue operating for another eight years over bipartisan concerns that the agency is overly secretive and failing to implement reforms suggested by the state auditor. Without the bill passing, the agency’s authorization would expire at the end of the month.

Lawmakers instead voted to impose new transparency requirements on the prison system.

“I’m not asking the department to do anything that they’re not statutorily already required to do,” said Rep. Shawnna Bolick, a Glendale Republican who pushed for the additional requirements. “I just want to make sure that there’s accountability at the end of the day.”

Also on tap was a massive new water bill Ducey called for early this year that is designed to help the state pay for new water sources.

Ducey called for a major new investment in water in his January state of the state address, implying some of that money would be used to build a desalination plant in Mexico. While the money may be used for that, it also can be used for conservation, developing groundwater or possibly importing water from other states.

By far the most contentious issue is the GOP’s voucher plan, which would open the program to all 1.1 million public school students.

Currently about 255,000 public school students qualify for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, although fewer than 12,000 take them. In addition to all current public school students, about 59,000 current private school students would be eligible under the new plan championed by House Majority Leader Ben Toma.

Toma and other advocates say money shouldn’t be a barrier preventing children from attending private schools. Democrats fiercely oppose the bill, saying there is no testing or other mechanism to make sure children are actually learning.

Their efforts to try to add accountability mechanisms, or at least force a vote on the issue, were thwarted when Republicans voted to suspend the rules that would typically allow such changes.

Democrats railed against the measure, saying it would siphon away much of the more than $500 million in new K-12 spending lawmakers enacted earlier this week.

“Its going to cost the state an additional $125 million by 2025,” said Sen. Christine Marsh, a Phoenix Democrat. “This is not just fiscally responsibly for us to be trying to run two separate systems at the same time.”

She pushed back against the Republican mantra about “school choice.”

“This is about the funding and the fact that there is not enough funding as it is for our public schools,” Marsh said. “And this is going to make it worse.”

Republican Sen. T.J. Shope of Coolidge said he thinks the measure does not go far enough. “I think in an ideal situation, we would entirely fund the student wherever the parent chooses to send their students,” Shope said.