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The Counterintuitive School Choice Fight Behind Arizona's Proposition 305

Voters in Arizona will decide today whether to move forward with a school voucher program that would allow all students to receive public money for private school. If the measure passes, it will mean the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in the state, opening funding for private school and homeschooling tuition to the state's 1.1. million students.

But that's not what the coalition of parents known as Save Our Schools Arizona—the group that got the measure on the ballot—wants voters to do.

The controversial proposition's language has voters confused, according to polls reported by the Arizona Republic. The fight behind Arizona's Proposition 305 is somewhat counterintuitive: The measure would uphold a 2017 expansion of the state's ESA voucher program, but Save Our Schools Arizona is urging Arizona to repeal it. The group, which opposes school choice, is hoping for a resounding "no" vote from the public to stop the program's expansion before it can go into effect. Local media describe the vote as pitting Save Our Schools Arizona against the state's "political elite," which has hailed the first-ever ESA program as the gold standard for school choice on the national stage.

When it was created in 2011, Arizona's ESA program was restricted to a small group of students, including those with disabilities. While not exactly vouchers, these accounts cover expenses for parents who opt out of the public school system. Then, in 2017, a conservative effort headed by Governor Doug Ducey sought to extend these funds to any public school student. After the expansion, investigations found that the ESAs allowed high-performing students to leave wealthy public schools for private ones. As much as 70 percent of the program's money was going to kids in A- or B-rated districts, instead of poor or historically marginalized students, according to an Arizona Republic analysis. A 2016 policy brief found that the program's language has a "general lack of clarity," meaning that its true financial effects are difficult to quantify; an analysis from the pro-school choice Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice shows two-thirds of families used the accounts to pay for private school tuition.

Now, Proposition 305—and Arizona's ESA program in general—is being viewed as a referendum on an issue pushed nationally by conservatives, in a state that's considered a "leader in school choice," the Republic reports. The grassroots coalition says the program defunds rural public schools, while conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have embraced the state's program as a "role model." But some pro-school choice advocates have chosen not to endorse the program, likely in a bid to enable stronger legislation after the mid-terms, according to a spokesperson for Save Our Schools Arizona.

When the expansion first passed, Democrats in the state bemoaned the portrayal of Arizona's foray into ESAs as an "experiment." "I don't believe we should experiment on our children," state senator Steve Farley (D-Tucson) told the Republic in 2017. If the proposition moves forward, this experiment will be officially sanctioned in Arizona, making 90 percent of public school funds available to thousands more parents across the state.