PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - The Red for Ed movement and the images of a sea of red protesters at the Capitol last spring put education front and center in Arizona as arguably the most important issue in our state.

"A lot of people are waking up to these issues," said Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the founders of Save Our Schools, a grassroots group leading the effort to vote 'no' on Proposition 305.

[RELATED: Gov. Ducey backing Prop. 305]

"The responsibility that we feel is that this is literally the future of our state. These are our kids, 1.1 million of them," said Penich-Thacker, who's also a communications professor at ASU.

Ninety-five percent of Arizona students attend charter or traditional schools funded by public tax dollars.

Prop. 305 expands the school voucher program for K-12 students in Arizona, which allows those public tax dollars to be used for private and religious education.

Currently, it serves a select group of children which include special education students, foster and adopted children, kids from military families, children on reservations, siblings of qualifying kids and children who are deaf or blind.

In 2009, vouchers were ruled unconstitutional in Arizona because tax dollars cannot go directly to private and religious schools.

Today, vouchers are now called "Empowerment Scholarship Accounts," or ESAs, and instead of going to a school, the tax dollars now go to parents who then pay for the private or religious school of their choice or for their kids to be taught at home.

Susan Edwards says her family benefits from ESAs but she doesn't think the program should be expanded to all students in the state.

"If you're not going to advocate for yourself and your kids, then you're gonna be at the back of the line," says Edwards.

Her oldest son attends a traditional public high school. Her youngest is gifted and goes to a charter school. Her other two boys are autistic on both ends of the spectrum and attend a specialized private school because Edwards contends they cannot get a quality education in traditional public school.

"The cost of tuition is about $25,000 apiece," said Edwards.

"They need to be able to learn independence, self-advocacy, deal with their learning differences out in the public. The reality is that socially, they're well behind and we live in a social society. That's how you get jobs and raises and you have a life and family," she explains.

Edwards wants to protect the ESA program for the small group it was intended for, like her sons.

"We're being used for something that is not the purpose of the ESA. There is a separation between church and state. We're not being taxed for private, religious education.

Last year, the program served 5,042 students and cost $59 million, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Nearly 60 percent of ESAs were awarded to special education students.

"ESAs let special ed kids in the back of the room stand on chairs to see the concert. If you have the expansion, what that is, is everybody else, getting up and standing on their chairs too. It puts the special ed kids right back where they started," Edwards explained.

Edwards believes if the program expands to all Arizona students, millions of more dollars would be drained from public education funding and she fears the fallout could put the entire ESA program in jeopardy.

For voters, the wording of Prop. 305 is tricky.

"It's very easily (sic) in the voters' mind to become confused that a 'yes' is a 'no' and a 'no' is a 'yes,'" says Marcus Dell'Artino, a political analyst with First Strategic.

Basically, a 'no' vote means 'no' on the voucher expansion.

It overturns the new state law expanding the current voucher program, making it available to any child, special circumstances or not.

People for Prop. 305's voucher expansion say the issue is about school choice.

"Shouldn't I be free to take my child where I want them to go to school, essentially is the argument," explains Dell'Artino.

Proponents claim it will bring competition in schools and force a better outcome.

"If the private schools are educating children better than it challenges traditional public education and charter schools to be able to keep up in that marketplace and it raises their level of education in the classroom," says Dell'Artino.

Opponents of Prop. 305 disagree, saying families in Arizona already have a choice.

"Parents choosing private education is not a problem, but parents choosing private education that is funded by tax dollars, that then we don't get to know what we're getting for that tax money -- are those students learning? What are they learning, and did they even use the money in a school or did they cash it in at Walmart, which has happened with the ESA program," says Penich-Thacker.

Accountability, she says, is just one issue. The most obvious was on display with the massive Red for Ed movement in April.

"Here in Arizona, our public schools are already starving. We have classrooms with no teacher. We have the lowest paid teachers in the country. Why are we hurting a system that needs more support, not less," said Penich-Thacker.

She said as more Arizonans realized education in our state was in crisis, they forced the legislature to take action and put more money into public school funding. That new money will go right back out if the voucher program expands beyond the specific group of children it was intended for.

"Every dollar that we pour into the public education budget, which Gov. (Doug) Ducey did this spring, is getting siphoned out by these voucher programs," explained Penich-Thacker.

"You suck all that money out and what you've got left are the have-nots. They're already disadvantaged, and now they're ending up with less money, less of everything," said Edwards of the students in public education.

[PDF: Arguments for Prop. 305]

[PDF: Arguments against Prop. 305]

[PDF: Secretary of State's pamphlet on Prop. 305]

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that ESAs can be applied to students who are taught home, but not kids who are home schooled.


Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


3TV News Anchor

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(1) comment

Dean

So it sounds like Susan Edwards has the attitude that "I've got mine and you cannot have yours" attitude. She is living off the taxpayer and feels no one else can.
People complain how bad Arizona schools are. Well if they are they should have to compete for students. Why should the taxpayer have to pay for sub standard services when something better could be available?

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