PHOENIX (AP) — Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and backers of universal school vouchers took a victory lap Tuesday over legislation the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted in June giving the state the nation's most expansive voucher system, and he also used the time to attack backers of public schools who are trying to block the measure at the ballot.
Ducey touted the signature bill he signed in July that gives all Arizona parents the ability to take state money that would go to their local public school and instead use it for private school tuition or other education costs. The governor had a ceremonial signing at a central Phoenix Christian school that already gets large benefits from the state's tax credit donation programs and existing school voucher program.
But he celebrated the new universal voucher expansion, which has been a key goal during his eight years in office. A similar law with enrollment caps that passed in 2017 was rejected by 2/3 of the state's voters the following year, but Ducey did not stop his voucher expansion plans.
“Over the last eight years, and it is taken all of eight years, we have taken action to ensure that more kids have this opportunity by positioning Arizona as the national leader in school choice,” Ducey told several hundred students, lawmakers and voucher supporters gathered at Phoenix Christian Preparatory School.
"Our kids will no longer be stuck in underperforming schools. We’re unlocking more educational options for them and unlocking their full potential," he said. “There’s no one-size fits all model to education."
But he acknowledged the fight ahead, as public school advocates try again to block the voucher law that is set to take effect on Sept. 24. And he slammed them for their efforts.
“Misguided special interest groups will try to tell you that this legislation will diminish our public education system,” he said. “They couldn’t be more wrong. Public education means educating the public.”
Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots groups made up mainly of public school parents, teachers and concerned citizens who blocked the 2017 law, said it is Ducey who is wrong. The group needs slightly more than 118,000 valid signatures to keep the voucher law from taking effect. It would remain blocked until voters can weigh in in November 2024.
"Gov. Ducey's dog and pony show about universal vouchers underscores his agenda to defund public education," Lewis said. “The reality is Arizona students all across the state have happily started public school. And parents expect those schools to be funded and they do not want vouchers."
Lewis and other public school advocates say vouchers take money from an already underfunded public school system, while proponents herald the program as letting parents choose the best education for their children.
Lewis contends the new voucher law could take away more than the new school funding lawmakers added this year, which neared $1 billion in ongoing and one-time cash.
Under the new law, an estimated 60,000 private students and about 38,000 being homeschooled would immediately be eligible to take up to $7,000 per year. Some of this currently get vouchers and many already get money from groups like School Tuition Organizations that funnel tax credits to students.
All 1.1 million students who attend traditional district and charter schools would also qualify to leave their public schools and get money to go to private schools. About a third already qualify, but only about 12,000 students statewide now use the system.