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2:36 AM Wed, Nov. 21st

Gov. Ducey backing school voucher expansion measure

Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at a news conference Aug. 14, 2018, in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP file)

Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at a news conference Aug. 14, 2018, in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP file)

PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is apparently willing to risk further angering the state's teachers by forcefully backing a measure that would massively expand the state's private school voucher system.

The Republican governor, comfortable with a solid lead in his re-election bid, has come out strongly this month in support of the school voucher plan, which is on the ballot as Proposition 305. A yes vote allows the vouchers system to expand, while a no vote rejects it.

The referendum was forced onto the ballot after teachers and public school supporters gathered enough signatures to block a Ducey-backed law passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2017. Arizona teachers this spring incensed at low pay and years of school budget cuts revolted, with tens of thousands of instructors staging a six-day strike that shuttered public schools serving more than 1 million children. They went back to work after the Legislature approved a plan to provide a 20 percent pay raise by 2020 but did not address other school funding demands.

The primary backer of the voucher law, the American Federation for Children, has bowed out of the election, saying the expansion will help the school choice effort but the previous law would remain in place and increase availability. The national school choice group, formerly led by now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, lobbied fiercely for the law during the 2017 legislative session.

After mainly avoiding the voucher issue over the summer, Ducey told reporters last week he was strongly backing approval of the measure. On Friday, he issued a statement saying the small existing program has brought big benefits and the 2017 law deserves a yes vote.

"Prop 305 is fiscally responsible, improves accountability and transparency, prioritizes low-income students and families and does not raise taxes," he said. "When parents have options, kids win."

Opponents of the expansion argue it siphons hundreds of millions of dollars from already-underfunded public schools and will mainly benefit rich parents who can afford private school tuition.

"Whether the governor feels emboldened by his polling data, or whether he's getting pressure from his national donors who ideologically want to push universal vouchers, I don't know," said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, the group that succeeded in blocking the law. "I don't think we're surprised. We were surprised by his silence more than we're surprised he's sticking to his guns."

The decision by Devos' former school choice group has left the effort to financially back the yes on Proposition 305 effort without a major source of funding. Filling the gap are the Goldwater Institute and the center for Arizona Policy, two Arizona-based groups that back school vouchers. Each gave slightly more than $10,000 to the campaign, with small donors adding another $2,000, between mid-August and Sept. 30. They had little cash left over for spending this month.

Save Our Schools Arizona, meanwhile, picked up more than $100,000 in mainly small donations and ended the period with more than $50,000 to spend on the final election push.

Technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the Arizona program allows parents to take between 90 percent and 100 percent of the state money a local public school would receive to pay for private or religious education. The average student currently receives about $6,000 a year to pay for tuition or other costs, while students with disabilities get about $20,000.

The 2017 expansion expands eligibility to all students by 2022 and offered lower payments, but caps enrollment at about 30,000.