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The Daily Agenda: The big voucher question
No one knows quite what will happen next ... More people should vote ... And these guys can't find a lawyer.
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Uncertainty looms large as Save Our Schools once again races to complete the Herculean task of collecting enough valid signatures to force a public vote on a bill to offer private school vouchers to any Arizona family that wants one.
The group, which was behind the successful campaign to get voters to veto lawmakers’ last massive expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in 2018, has a little more than two weeks left to collect nearly 120,000 valid signatures.
If Save Our Schools fails, Arizona will be home to the largest school choice program in the nation. If it succeeds, however, the uncertainty will reign for another two years, until voters ultimately decide the issue at the 2024 ballot.
Families are already registering to receive their universal voucher for the school year that has already started, but the Arizona Department of Education, which is tasked with administering the program, can’t deliver the ESAs until it knows the fate of the law. Nearly 8,000 students are waiting to hear if their families will qualify for a universal voucher to pay for tuition at private and religious schools or homeschool costs this year.
The vast majority of students whose parents have applied for new universal ESAs aren’t currently enrolled in a public school, Department of Education data shows. That means they were likely already attending a private school, and the ESAs were going to backfill some of the tuition costs.
The department doesn’t know how many of Arizona’s estimated 50,000 private school students and 35,000 homeschooled students who don’t already receive an ESA could apply, nor does the department know how many of the more than 1 million public school kids in Arizona could take advantage of the universal voucher program. Without those numbers, we have no idea what the new program will cost, though the Legislature’s budget gurus took a “highly speculative” stab at some estimates, finding that it could cost around $125 million by 2025.
It’s also unclear what lawmakers will do if the referendum qualifies for the ballot and the law is put on hold for two years until voters have a chance to decide its fate. In the past, lawmakers have repealed and replaced laws subject to referendum, but with a new governor coming in, it’s not even clear if that will be an option.
But the biggest unknown over Arizona’s school vouchers expansion is whether voters support or oppose it.
Four years ago, voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to expand ESAs to a lesser degree. But backers of the law correctly note that in 2018, Save Our Schools had the field all to itself — there was no organized opposition to the Prop 305 referendum. That won’t be the case if the referendum is successful in making the ballot in 2024.
Proponents of the law say times have changed. The pandemic — and resulting in-person school closures — have altered the public’s perception of public schools, they say, and voters are more willing today to support ESA expansion than they were four years ago.
Pretty soon, voters might get the chance to speak for themselves — again.
Some of you voted!: Voter turnout in the August primaries in Arizona reached record levels, which are still quite low. The vast majority of voters cast an early ballot, the Republic’s Mary Jo Pitzl reports. The statewide turnout was nearly 35%, though that varied from county to county, and Republicans turned out at higher rates than Democrats.
Racking up the frequent flier miles: Former top Cyber Ninja Doug Logan visited a Georgia county elections office twice in the weeks following a potential “post-election breach” of voting equipment that is now part of a criminal investigation, the Washington Post reports, based on surveillance video at the Coffee County (cool name) office.
What’d Ben Stiller do?: U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly were among the more than two dozen Americans sanctioned by Russia after the U.S. sanctioned Russians, the Associated Press reports. Arizona’s two senators join a list of people that includes elected officials from both parties and other big names, like actors Ben Stiller and Sean Penn.
COVID funds for college: Some of Phoenix’s COVID-19 relief funds will go toward a college promise program at the Maricopa Community Colleges that’ll cover tuition and related needs for about 400 students, KJZZ’s Christina Estes reports. The city will give $5 million to the colleges for the program.
Sector differences: Few Mexicans are crossing into the U.S. at the border near Yuma, the Associated Press reports. Instead, the people arriving in the Yuma sector come from all over the world, while those arriving in the Tucson sector are largely Mexican and Central American nationals. The difference between the two sectors stems from the response to Title 42, but it’s not clear why the populations and practices are so different in the two sectors, the outlet said. Separately, the Border Chronicle’s Melissa del Bosque tracks the use of fearmongering language candidates and politicians in Arizona and Texas use about the border.
If you don’t pay to subscribe, the Arizona Agenda will die. Fearmongering is an effective sales tactic.
You’ve lost suburban women: Republican candidates in close races across the country, including GOP U.S. Senate nominee Blake Masters, are flailing with women voters, even after they’ve walked back their comments on abortion, Politico reports. The story cites one poll where Masters was up on Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly by 8 points with men, but down by 22 points with women, leaving him down overall. Masters and other GOP candidates have recently run ads featuring their wives and families, which Arizona Republican consultant Chuck Coughlin told Politico was a smarter approach for November than Masters’ “apocalyptic” primary election ads.
“The primary campaign was, you know, Orwellian,” Coughlin told Politico. “Him in the desert looking off as the lost man that wants to right the ways of the world with one clean, swift hand. It was like out of Rod Serling or something like that.”
Democrat on Democrat letter writing: In a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton writes that California needs to work with other Colorado River basin states to preserve more water and prevent catastrophe at Lake Mead. Stanton tells Newsom that California is “failing to do its part” and is using more water, not less.
New leadership: As part of a series on labor leaders in Arizona timed with Labor Day this week, the Phoenix New Times’ Katya Schwenk profiles the new president of the teachers union, the Arizona Education Association. Marisol Garcia is new to the president’s role, but not new to labor movements for teachers. She helped lead the 2018 #RedforEd teacher walkout.
The helpers: At Mesa Public Schools, hundreds of students who don’t have stable housing will be able to get assistance, from toiletries to school supplies, from the school district, which gets funds from federal grants to help homeless students, 12News reports. And in the zone downtown near the Human Services Campus, a program called Project Connect helps homeless people find services, get identification and connect with assistance programs for jobs and more, Cronkite News reports.
Don’t try them: Elections officials are beefing up security to protect their workers after the 2020 election, the New York Times reports. In Maricopa County, for instance, there’s now a metal fence surrounding the downtown Phoenix tabulation center, plus more security cameras and private security patrols, the county’s election director, Scott Jarrett, told the Times. The county even added a protective coating to windows to make them harder to break, he said.
“Even someone with a hammer who was banging against it, I think the manufacturer said that someone could be doing that for a consistent five minutes, and it’s not going to break,” Jarrett said.
Your tax dollars at work: Get a glimpse at the proposal for a widened Interstate 10, which will make the commute from Tucson to Phoenix marginally less dreadful, in this Pinal Central story.
It’s not just Attorney General Mark Brnovich who won’t defend the state in a lawsuit against a new law banned people from filming cops closer than 8 feet. The other two defendants — Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell and Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone — won’t defend it, either, the Arizona Mirror’s Jim Small notes.
We’ll see if Senate President Karen Fann and House Speaker Rusty Bowers can find a lawyer to take up the case.
Because the Legislature adjourned so late this year, the 2022 general election ballots must be printed before the 90-day window to challenge a law via a referendum has passed. That means that any public vote on the measure will have to wait until 2024.