Republican Legislative Leadership

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Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs will discuss the latest news from the Arizona Legislature.

Ted Simons: The Arizona Senate this week voted to phase in a controversial voucher-like storm system to Saul state public students by the 2020 school year. They talked about the bill and other activity at the legislature, here's Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs. Good to see you.

Andy Biggs: Good to see you, too.

Ted Simons: I know you're not going to like to call them vouchers, but technically they are voucher-like. How is this good for Arizona, the idea that tax dollars are going to citizens to pay for private school tuition?

Andy Biggs: Well, one thing that you have to realize is that I believe in school choice. I believe parents should choose where their kids go to school. But what ESAs do is they allow particularly low-income children -- and this bill expands it significantly -- it allows them to choose what school they want to go to, which they otherwise might not be able to attend. You're concerned about tax dollars but here's the rub. You actually save almost 2,000 per student who takes an ESA. If they were to stay in their traditional public school they would be fund bad $2,000 higher than the ESA amount they will be getting. In many cases you save more than that.

Ted Simons: It's interesting in in some cases like it's only a few hundred dollars. So I think the numbers are obviously out there. But you mentioned the idea of having kids, especially low-income kids. "The Arizona Republic" did a report and it shows the ESAs are most likely used by high-income parents at better-performing schools. I think that's one of the major criticisms here. How do you respond to that?

Andy Biggs: I believe that study might have some dubious selection bias to be honest with you. I say that because I think that other studies are going indicate to you that there are a lot of low-income students who are able to take advantage of these, and they get out and do that. They get out and move to a different school. This is a good thing. Because let's think about the argument you just made. You're saying, well, you know, low-income students can't get out. Essentially that's what you're saying and that's not true. I despite that. But the implication then is that the low-income family is either content with the school they are at, and if they are I'm happy with that. If they are don't stay where they are. Or the implication is something more sinister, which I'm not sure what that is. Arizona has one of the most proactive and widest used school choice programs in the country. Almost 22% of our students are in nontraditional Public schools. And that's a good thing because it allows them to get out there, focus on getting the education they want the parents can get involved he and that's also a good thing.

Ted Simons: Critics will say in tandem with what the "Republic" reported, private school, parochial school, it's just not realistic options for some kids. They can't get there in terms of transportation. Tax breaks would still not remotely cover the tuition and some of these schools may not want the kids to begin with. Aren't those all factors in here?

Andy Biggs: I think they are overplayed. We have seen where there's a Milwaukee case study, whether it's the Cleveland case study, when you have students, regardless of their socioeconomic background -- let's take students from a disadvantaged economic background. If they are given an opportunity, they take it. Transportation is not really an overwhelming obstacle to many of them. If they want to take advantage of it, they can. This provides them in many instances with all of the necessary funding. There are other studies on the other side. That's the point. I mean, you can cherry-pick a study on either side. What we're seeing is a lot of low-income students are able to change and go to, for instance, a parochial school if they think that's better.

Ted Simons: You're saying they are able to change -- each though common sense would dictate that some of these schools are kind of expensive. No matter what kind of tax break you give a low-income family they are not going to be able to afford tuition.

Andy Biggs: This is an educational scholarship. It gives a substantial sum of money that actually in most cases covers all of the private school tuition.

Ted Simons: You're saying in most cases this would cover all of the tuition? They would not be lacking?

Andy Biggs: That's what I've seen, yeah.

Ted Simons: And private and parochial schools, as far as accountability is concerned?

Andy Biggs: I think the best accountability is looking at outcomes of students he and choices their parents make. I think that's the best way to see accountability. Let me give you an example. If you have three or four schools as in the district that I live in, and they are -- you have some charters and some privates, what you'll see is parents are at a taking their kids to the schools they think will provide the best outcome for their child. That is the best accountability you have.

Ted Simons: We have heard reports and responses to this saying this will be the end of public education in Arizona. How do you respond?

Andy Biggs: That is silly. It is not going to be the end. This program is actually capped and it is a small fraction that will impact this, a very small fraction of students.

Ted Simons: It's capped.

Andy Biggs: It pops off in 2021 but it'll have natural caps to it.

Ted Simons: Most Arizona students will be involved, they will be eligible.

Andy Biggs: They will, but you're much more optimistic at them switching to ESAs than I am. The reality is many parents are perfectly content with the school their students are going to, the neighborhood public school, the charter school, the parochial school. I think you're going to see that persist.

Ted Simons: For those who say why vote for prop 123 when this, in their minds, guts public schools? 123, we need the public schools. And when this comes along, by 2020 no one's going to want public schools.

Andy Biggs: Again, I say that's a non sequitur quite frankly. That money is going to go to traditional and charter public schools. That's where that's going to go, it's going to be a big boost, $3.5 billion over 10 years. When we talk about a student availing themselves of an educational scholarship, when they go there will be more money that reverts to the traditional public schools. I don't understand the argument. It doesn't make sense to me. Even you, even the study you were referring to says yeah, but maybe they only save a few hundred dollars. That adds up if you have more switchers.

Ted Simons: Bottom line, the idea that this gives the wealthy a private school discount -- I've heard that argument -- it gives the wealthy a private school discount. How do you respond?

Andy Biggs: I'd say this gives the advantaged student the opportunity to leave a failing school and go to a school where they can have a superior education.

Ted Simons: I've heard people say this is a way for the legislature; you're looking to dismantle public schools. That is your bottom line.

Andy Biggs: No, I think that is an irrational response to it quite frankly. We are looking for outcomes. We are looking for the best possible outcome for students. Get them the best opportunity to maximize their talent and capacity. That may be. I have six children. Each one of them has very different talents, capacities, interests. And one school may not work as well for one as for another school. That's what school choice is about, to allow parents to optimize their students' best education.

Ted Simons: So you're skeptical on this particular issue, you're skeptical of what the "The Arizona Republic" found, skeptical of their reporting, called it cherry-picking I believe. If you find a study that says it is the wealthy that are going to these things, using these scholarships, they are leaving from better performing schools as opposed to the goal, which is low-income from poor performing schools. Are you willing to change something about that?

Andy Biggs: Well, Ted, that's a hypothetical question, wrapped in a hypothetical onion wrapper. I haven't seen that study. The last time we were here we talked about another hypothetical question, you love those.

Ted Simons: Of course I do! But the possibility exists that someone's going to come along and say, you know, Senate President Andy Biggs, it's mostly used by wealthy families.

Andy Biggs: Yeah, that's a hypothetical.

Ted Simons: You don't believe that, do you?

Ted Simons: Yeah, I don't believe it.

Ted Simons: All right, on we go.

Andy Biggs: That's the cynic in me. What do you want?

Ted Simons: The idea that the Superintendent of Public Instruction has to be told by the legislature what exactly hers or his powers might be: What's going on here? You guys passed this 24-5 in the Senate. What did this bill actually do?

Andy Biggs: I wouldn't characterize it the way you just characterized it. As you know, the superintendent and the state board, they do have some -- there is some conflicts. But I'm not saying that they're personality driven necessarily. What we discover in the interim I asked my staff, please get me the statutes. Let's see if there's overlap. We found there was overlap and quite frankly you have 50-plus years of history where a legislative body said, you know, we like the superintendent so we're going to give him or her some power. Then somebody else comes in, we like the state board. And sometimes there's just this confusion. That's all this bill is trying to do is to clarify conflicting statutory instructions.

Ted Simons: The Superintendent of Public Instruction says this reverses the will of the voters, and also calls it repulsive but I won't get a response to that, that's subjective. But reverses the will of the voters. Does he have a point?

Andy Biggs: I don't see how. The Constitution is very clear on this, article 11, sections 1-4, are very clear about this. It sets the superintendent of public instruction sets up the State Board of Education and both derive their authority to act in any form from the state legislature. So the state legislature is designed to come up with policy. The State Board of Education is supposed to enact that policy. They give it to the State Board of Education who then administers that policy. That's all this bill is trying to do. It's not trying to take anybody's power.

Ted Simons: But is it right to change that particular balance of power after an election in which a candidate --

Andy Biggs: There's been no change in the balance of power. That's what I found intriguing about this. I'm not seeing a change in the balance of power. What I'm saying is maybe there's different parties wanting to assume a little bit of power that otherwise wouldn't be there. I think this is pretty clear. I don't think anybody's trying to denigrate an election at all.

Ted Simons: Okay. All right. Grant's law, this was passed by the Senate. Illegal undocumented illegals, whatever verbiage you want to use must serve full sentences, no parole. Why is this necessary, why a good thing for Arizona?

Andy Biggs: What we found is in theory they were supposed to be turned over perhaps to ICE. ICE doesn't hold them under -- whether it's a policy or whatever reason, they are not holding them. These individuals that otherwise would be incarcerated and then should be deported are out on the street running around. That's what happened in Grant's case. Over a pack of cigarettes this young man was killed by someone who otherwise would have been incarcerated and that action wouldn't have happened.

Ted Simons: Critics say you're singling out a group here, it's not necessary. It's pure politics, doesn't necessarily make things safer. Your response.

Andy Biggs: My response is to get to prison in Arizona, I know a little bit about the law, you have to work at it. I've talked to Bill Montgomery, you have to work at it a little bit to get in prison in Arizona. These are guys that had trouble dealing with society. You know what? We've put into place transition programs for people who aren't violent criminals. But if we're letting people out early, this makes them safer, it does make the public safer. There's a lot of reasons why, but that's why.

Ted Simons: The Senate did defeat a couple of immigration bills I found interesting. The first was this ban of city-issued I.D.s to undocumented folks. That was defeated. They are saying it helps with services and helps with dealing with the police and these sorts of things. What's going on here?

Andy Biggs: I think that was mischaracterized as an illegal immigration bill. This seems to be an I.D. theft prevention bill. Arizona is one of the top three or four states in I.D. theft every year. Some years we're number one, even. What the bill simply did it said look, if you want to issue an I.D., go ahead, but it can't look like the Arizona driver's license or official I.D. Because then it'll be easily mistaken as an official I.D. Sometimes a municipality will say bring in the utility bill and we'll issue you an I.D. It's to prevent this idea of I.D. theft.

Ted Simons: Another defeat, regarding a shared revenue ban to cities described as sanctuary cities, quote, unquote. The immigration fatigue involved here, symbolically chasing people around if they can't show papers doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Are you surprised both of these bills lost?

Andy Biggs: Ted, I've been in the legislature 14 years. This type of thing doesn't surprise me. I would say I wasn't surprised. But what I would say is I again think this bill was a good bill, it was a necessary bill. For me I look at it as, are the municipalities, the subdivisions of the states complying with state law. And if they are, I don't have a problem with them doing what they want to do. But there's a reason we pass state law. That's what for me the issue was here. You know, I won't speak for these senators. They voted, I'm sure, on their conscience and principles.

Ted Simons: Very quickly, critics are saying these kinds of bills jeopardize the economy and send the wrong message to Mexico. Do you agree?

Andy Biggs: I -- I don't. I think that's just silliness again. That's overstating it. I was told we're going to have SB 1070 protests. Well, who's going to gin it up? You guys. They are straightforward, defensible and nobody's trying to gin that up.

Ted Simons: Gotta stop you right there. That's it for now, I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us, you have a great evening.

Video: Arizona Horizon is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Andy Biggs:Arizona Senate President

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