Easier voucher access and a ban on mask mandates: What’s in Arizona budget on education – AZCentral.com

From a voucher expansion to a ban on controversial discussions on race, the Arizona Legislature’s budget discussions this year were also a legislative referendum on big education questions.

And with Republican control of both houses, most efforts to strengthen school choice or minimize mask mandates were signed into law Wednesday afternoon as part of the $13 billion budget, along with a major tax overhaul that will drop rates to 2.5% over the next three years and a $50 million boost in special education funding.

Discussion on the House and Senate floors leading up to the approval of the unified legislation highlighted starkly different views of the bill. 

“This is a record amount of money we are putting into education,” one legislator said. 

But Democratic legislators and public education advocates said the budget, which writ large was passed with a funding surplus estimated to range between $2 billion and $4 billion, missed an opportunity to meet the biggest needs for Arizona students.

“We had a chance, and you blew it,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Phoenix. “We still have teacher pay that is among the lowest in the nation. We still have class sizes that are among the largest. This budget is such a disappointment.”

Arizona Education Association Vice President Marisol Garcia said the budget felt “like a slap in the face” because legislators prioritized the controversy over civics education and transportation innovations instead of ways to reduce class sizes or fund full-day kindergarten, measures she says are needed to support the state’s poorest students. 

“Arizona is already the bellwether of how to privatize and make money off children,” she said. “We wanted to see a pure investment in our schools.” 

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Here are some of the education measures in this year’s budget: 

Broader access to private school vouchers

Arizona students who live within the boundary of a school that earns a D or F rating will be able to participate in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program after a shift in eligibility rules passed in the state budget.

The language would also cut by more than half, from 100 days to 45, how long a student must spend at a public school in order to be eligible to participate in the voucher program. 

That period could be in any year, including the current one, making it much easier for children to leave public school for the ESA program. In addition, private schools and school choice advocates could recruit children to leave their public school in the same school year. 

The measures are more narrow than the expansion initially proposed by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, which would have made eligible an additional 72,000 students on free and reduced-price lunch.

Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, who supported the ESA amendment, said parents who want to remove their child from a school that isn’t achieving well should be allowed to do so.

“No one has a right to say as a parent that I have to send my kid to a school that is failing,” he said.

Democrats argued against the bill.

“This is defunding education,” said Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock.

A ban on school mask mandates 

The budget would prohibit school boards from mandating that students or staff wear masks, a position that is controversial because vaccination rates vary among Arizona communities and no vaccine is yet approved for children younger than 12. An initial version of this amendment gave school districts the choice. 

The version passed in the budget also prohibits a school district or charter from requiring a student or teacher to be vaccinated for in-person instruction. 

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Fines for ‘controversial’ lessons

Amidst debate at school districts across the state about diversity and inclusion efforts often described by critics as “critical race theory,” legislators included a mandate that prevents a teacher or administrator from using public funding on instruction that “presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.”

That includes courses that may say one person is inherently morally or intellectually superior, racist, sexist or should be discriminated on based on their race, ethnicity or sex.

The measure also allows courts to fine a school district, charter or state agency up to $5,000 for a violation. A previous version of legislation on this issue would have allowed individual teachers to face the $5,000 penalty

Grants for parent drivers

The House budget allows school districts to put a portion of their transportation funds starting next year toward grants that allow parents or carpools to be reimbursed for driving students to school. That program likely would bolster charter schools, which usually offer fewer transportation options than district schools.

Changes to oversight of educator wrongdoing

Educators accused of wrongdoing or unprofessional conduct now will be investigated by a body appointed by the governor, rather than an elected oversight board. 

That moves the responsibility from the Arizona Department of Education, whose board is elected, to the State Board of Education, whose leadership members are appointed by the governor. The state board will be able to create rules around investigations, issue subpoenas and have access to data for reviewing the backgrounds of people accused of misconduct.

Changes to Arizona’s open enrollment policies

Arizona state law allows students to apply to learn in any public school, depending on available classroom space.

A shift in open enrollment policies laid out in the state budget would:

  • Prohibit schools from using attendance boundaries to require students to attend certain schools.
  • Require a school to include its open enrollment policies on its website in languages used by the student body.
  • Mandate that schools update their capacity numbers online every 12 weeks. 

Schools also would be required to accept students all year if capacity allowed, place students on a wait list if there is no capacity for additional seats and give enrollment preference to students within an attendance boundary or who have a sibling at a specific school.

The measure also would require the Arizona Board of Education to develop an annual public report on how broadly a school, district or county participates in open enrollment.

Data on in-person learning, recovery spending 

The last year of historic enrollment drops and struggling students raised many questions. A measure in the budget seeks to bring some transparency to what happened in schools last year and what comes next. 

Districts will be required to report whether they offered at least 100 days of in-person teaching last school year, with the data due to the Department of Education by Aug. 21.

The measure also will require the Department of Education to post online by Sept. 1 district plans to address the effects of COVID-19 on student learning.

A new requirement for elementary educators

A bill passed Wednesday would establish an endorsement in teaching reading for certified K-5 teachers beginning in 2025 and would create a tool to evaluate students entering kindergarten.

The measure also gives school districts and charters more time to train at least one of their kindergarten teachers to recognize dyslexia. 

Mary Jo Pitzl contributed to this article. 

Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @yanazure.

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