Showdown over schools comes to AZ ballots in November

Showdown over schools comes to AZ ballots in November

(Ariz.) Two key education measures are likely to be decided by voters this November—one over the expansion of the state’s voucher program has already qualified for the ballot; the other, a tax hike on the wealthy to support teacher pay, appears likely to qualify as well.

The two measures come at a critical time for Arizona schools, which rank in the bottom in national rankings. Tight-fisted fiscal policies on the state level have led to years of district budget cuts, teacher shortages and educator pay among the lowest in the nation.

Conditions at most schools led to widespread teacher walkouts earlier this spring and protests that ultimately led to Gov. Doug Ducey and legislative leaders agreeing in May to a 19 percent pay raise over three years.

Even with that victory, however, the Arizona Education Association along with the Children’s Action Alliance helped lead a signature-gathering effort to place a $645 million tax increase on the ballot.

The proposal, which is awaiting approval from the secretary of state’s office, would impose a 3.5 percent increase on residents earning more than $250,000 per year, and a 4.5 percent hike on incomes above $500,000 annually.

Supporters of the measure turned in 270,000 petition signatures—almost twice the number needed.

Meanwhile, a referendum on Arizona’s voucher program has already been approved for the November ballot.

Proposition 305 asks voters to affirm legislative action from last year designed to make all K-12 students eligible for state funded scholarships that could be used for tuition at any qualified school or any other educational service including home-school supplies or tutors.

Opponents of the program qualified a measure that would repeal the state law earlier this year and sets the stage for a high-stakes face-off between Arizona’s growing progressive movement and the state’s majority conservatives.

Among those supporting the voucher program is the American Federation for Children, founded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools—which led the drive to qualify the referendum, said that vouchers would further undermine school funding.

“Every dollar the ESA program takes out has an inflated negative impact on public schools because they're already underfunded,” Penich-Thacker told Inside Tucson Business this week. “The voucher expansion just amplifies that problem.”

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Tucson, said he supports providing vouchers because parents should have the choice.

“We are delivering a woefully inadequate education product to prepare kids for life after school,” he told Inside Tucson. “Parents are voting with their wallets, so to speak, and they're looking for an alternative quality education.” more