Governor Jan Brewer surprised school-choice advocates in Arizona last week when she vetoed a bill that would have expanded the state's voucher-like Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
“It was a total shock to everyone,” said Representative Debbie Lesko, who sponsored the legislation that expands the state's existing private school voucher program. “The governor at no time indicated to any of us that there was any concern.”
Opponents of the bill cheered Brewer's decision. “We were very excited to see the governor's action,” says Janice Palmer, director of government relations and public affairs at the Arizona School Boards Association, which has challenged the current incarnation of the ESA program in court. “We feel that those dollars should be invested in our public schools.”
Brewer has previously proclaimed herself a champion of school choice, and Arizona is home to the largest percentage of charter schools of any state in the country, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Her veto came one day before the legislature in Louisiana passed legislation, backed by Governor Bobby Jindal, that would greatly expand its current voucher program.
But Brewer's move may have been more tactical than ideological. The governor cited concerns about increased state costs and the timing of the measure in her veto letter, but indicated that she would be willing to revisit the bill down the road.
The legislature has yet to approve a budget, and Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said that this veto and another one earlier in the week were, in part, intended to spur lawmakers to move faster in their budget negotiations. “This is certainly something that the governor is happy to revisit,” Benson said, “just following a budget.”
Budget talks slowed because Brewer wants to spend about $500 million more in next year's budget than legislators want, according to the Arizona Republic.
Lesko's bill would have allowed students in the worst-performing schools, gifted students and children of members of the armed forces to qualify for the ESA program, which gives parents of students who opt out of public school 90 percent of the state portion of education funding. Currently, only students with disabilities are eligible for the program.
Lesko says legislators heard testimony from parents currently taking advantage of the ESA program who said their children were flourishing in private schools with specialized support. “It was very inspiring,” she said.
But Palmer says expanding the program would harm local school districts by pulling state funding for students who leave public schools and participate in the program. “One or two kids does not change the staffing needs of what a school would need,” she said. “The overhead costs continue to be the same.”
Advocates say the program wouldn't draw on any local funds and would save the state money. “No matter which way you slice it, it's going to be less expensive for the state,” said Jonathan Butcher, education director for the conservative Goldwater Institute, which backs the measure. He estimates that under the vetoed legislation, roughly one in three Arizona students would have been eligible for the ESA funding.
The ESA program builds on an earlier state voucher system for students with disabilities that was ruled unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2009. The new system attempts to circumvent that ruling by giving the money directly to parents, rather than private schools, and it has so far held up in court.
The legislative session is scheduled to end April 17, but Lesko and Butcher say they are optimistic that the vetoed legislation could still get a second chance this year.