Petitions put Arizona school voucher expansion on hold



Ted Simons: GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO "ARIZONA HORIZON." I'M TED SIMONS. A NEW LAW THAT EXPANDS ARIZONA'S SCHOOL VOUCHER PROGRAM WAS PUT ON HOLD TUESDAY AFTER A VOLUNTEER GROUP GATHERED ENOUGH SIGNATURES TO PUT THE MEASURE TO A VOTE NEXT YEAR. THE SECRETARY OF STATE'S OFFICE STILL NEEDS TO DETERMINE IF THE GROUP, SAVE OUR SCHOOLS ARIZONA, SUBMITTED ENOUGH VALID SIGNATURES FOR A REFERENDUM, BUT FOR NOW, THE LAW WILL NOT GO INTO EFFECT. JOINING US NOW TO TALK ABOUT THE VOUCHER LAW ARE BETH LEWIS, CHAIR OF SAVE OUR SCHOOLS ARIZONA, AND MATT LADNER, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW AT THE CHARLES KOCH INSTITUTE. COMING UP ON "ARIZONA HORIZON," THANKS FOR JOINING US. WHY DID YOUR GROUP FIGHT SO HARD TO BLOCK THIS LAW?

Beth Lewis: I'M A TEACHER. I SPEAK ON BEHALF OF SCHOOLS, MOMS, OUR CLASSROOMS ARE IN CRISIS. OUR ACHIEVEMENT SCORES ARE GOING UP BUT NOT TO THE LEVEL WE CAN SUSTAIN. WE UNDERSTAND THAT THE STATE ECONOMY IS DEPENDENT ON OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM. WE SEE OUR STATE CRUMBLING. OUR LEGISLATURE REFUSES TO FUND OUR SCHOOLS. THIS WAS THE LAST DRAW. THE TEACHER WON'T ALLOW ONE MORE THING TO BE TAKEN FROM THE CLASSROOM.

Ted Simons: WHERE DO YOU HEAR THAT?

Beth Lewis: REPUBLICAN, DEMOCRATS, TIME AND TIME AGAIN SAID THEY WANT TO KEEP TAXPAYER FUNDS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND BELIEVE THE ESA PROGRAM WILL DECIMATE THE PROGRAM.

Ted Simons: ARE YOU SURPRISED AT ALL THAT A VOLUNTEER GROUP GOT THAT MANY SIGNATURES ON THE BALLOT IN THAT AMOUNT OF TIME?

Matt Ladner: I'M IMPRESSED. THE CHATTERING CLASSES IN TOWN ARE SKEPTICAL OF THIS. NOT JUST ON MY SIDE OF THE FENCE, BUT THE SCHOOL DISTRICT'S SIDE OF THE FENCE WHERE A LOT OF SKEPTICISM EXPRESSED. IT'S NOT EASY TO RAISE SIGNATURES IN 119-DEGREE HEAT. IT WAS AN IMPRESSIVE EFFORT.

Ted Simons: WITH THAT IN MIND, EXPANDING THIS PROGRAM, WHY DO THOSE WHO SUPPORT IT THINK IT'S GOOD FOR ARIZONA?

Matt Ladner: WELL, WE START WITH THE PREMISE THAT PARENTS SHOULD HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO FIND A SCHOOL THAT IS A GOOD FIT FOR THEIR CHILD. FOR THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE THAT IS GOING TO BE IN THE DISTRICT SYSTEM, BUT NOT FOR EVERYONE. STATE OF ARIZONA TOOK STEPS TO INCREASE PARENTAL CHOICE IN 1994. WE HAVE BEEN LEADING THE NATION IN ACADEMIC GAINS SINCE 2009. THE QUESTIONS OVER SCHOOL FUNDING AND WHETHER WE SHOULD HAVE PARENTAL CHOICE ARE NOT THE SAME THING. IF YOU SAKE ALL OF THE PRIVATE CHOICE PROGRAMS COMBINED, THEY EDUCATE 5% OF THE STUDENTS. THIS IS 5% OF A PIE THAT'S ALWAYS GROWING AND THEY ARE UTILIZING 2% OF THE DOLLARS.

Ted Simons: THIS IS AN EFFORT TO EXPAND THE PIE.

Matt Ladner: YES, AND GIVE THE PARENTS THE OPPORTUNITY TO FIND A GOOD FIT FOR THEIR CHILD.

Ted Simons: DOES THAT MAKE SENSE, THE IDEA THAT PARENTS COULD CUSTOMIZE THEIR KID'S EDUCATION AND UNIQUE NEEDS.

Beth Lewis: SURE. I'M A PARENT. I'M SENDING BOTH OF MY CHILDREN TO PUBLIC SCHOOL THIS YEAR. I HAVE GONE THROUGH THAT DILEMMA AND CHOICE THIS YEAR. I KNOW ARIZONA HAS MANY CHOICES. WE HAVE A ROBUST SCHOOL CHOICE. THAT IS A WONDERFUL THING. 95% OF THOSE ARE FUNDED PUBLICLY AND ARE CHOSEN BY PARENTS ACROSS THE STATE. THAT IS THE CHOICE. THERE IS NO REASON TO FUND THE OTHER 5%.

Ted Simons: THE ARGUMENT BEING THAT SOME OF THE KIDS ARE IN FAILING SCHOOLS AND PARENTS WANT THEM OUT OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN GENERAL. HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THAT?

Beth Lewis: WE HAVE SEEN WITH THE CURRENT ESA PROGRAM, ONLY 4% OF THE ESA GO TO STUDENTS IN A D OR F RATED SCHOOL BECAUSE WHEN YOU APPLY A $5,000 VOUCHER TO A $15,000 SCHOOL, YOU HAVE A COST THAT REMAINS. IT'S LIKE GIVING SOMEONE 15% OF A STEAK DINNER AND SAYING HAPPY BIRTHDAY. IT'S A BIT INSULTING, DON'T YOU THINK?

Ted Simons: EVEN WITH THE VOUCHERS MANY CAN'T AFFORD PRIVATE SCHOOLS.

Matt Ladner: THE AVERAGE IS NOT $10,000. PRIVATE SCHOOL IS NOT THE ONLY THING YOU CAN DO WITH THE PROGRAM. IT'S A DIFFERENT PROGRAM THAN THE SCHOOL VOUCHER. WE CAN'T MAKE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY, BUT WE CAN DO BETTER THAN WE ARE DOING NOW. WE HAVE A LOT OF PARENTAL CHOICE IN ARIZONA. WE ALSO HAVE A HUNDRED THOUSAND STUDENTS ON CHARTER SCHOOL WAIT LISTS AND WE HAVE A LARGER GROUP OF PARENTS AND FAMILIES THAT NEVER CONSIDERED THE HIGHEST PERFORMING DISTRICT SCHOOLS AS A GOOD FIT FOR THEIR CHILD BECAUSE IT NEVER CROSSED THEIR RADAR SCREEN BECAUSE THEY CAN'T AFFORD IT. THEY CAN'T AFFORD TO PAY THE SCHOOL TAXES IN ADDITION TO PRIVATE SCHOOL TUITION.

Ted Simons: YET, THE PUBLIC SCHOOL, THE ARGUMENT IS, THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS WOULD GET BETTER IF THE STATE WOULD INCREASINGLY FUND THEM AND B, NOT TAKE MONEY OUT OF THE SCHOOLS TO PUT INTO PROGRAMS LIKE THIS. HOW DO YOU RESPOND?

Matt Ladner: I RESPOND THAT ARIZONA'S KIDS MADE STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT GAINS ON ALL SIX EXAMS THAT WE CAN TRACK. SIX TESTS. THE AVERAGE STATE THIS PERIOD HAD ONE INCREASE. WE ARE THE ONLY STATE THAT MADE THAT MUCH IMPROVEMENT. WE HAVE MORE PARENTAL CHOICE THAN ANYONE ELSE. IT'S HARD TO ARGUE THAT DISTRICT SCHOOLS IN ARIZONA ARE PERFORMING BETTER THAN BEFORE. IT INCLUDES THE DISTRICTS. CAN WE GET A SYSTEM THAT WORKS BETTER FOR MORE KIDS.

Ted Simons: ANOTHER QUESTION, DO YOU TAKE MONEY OUT OF THE SYSTEM WHEN IT'S GETTING UP TO SPEED?

Matt Ladner: IN MY VIEW, THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION IS, WHOSE MONEY IS THIS? IS IT THE SYSTEM'S MONEY OR FAMILY'S MONEY? I BELIEVE WE OUGHT TO LET FAMILIES DIRECT K-12 FUNDING.

Ted Simons: LET FAMILIES DECIDE FOR FAMILIES. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THAT?

Beth Lewis: NOTHING THE WRONG WITH THAT. I HAVE SPOKEN TO THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE COLLECTING SIGNATURES. OVERWHELMINGLY, ARIZONANS CHOOSE PUBLIC SCHOOLS. FAMILIES HAVE A CHOICE. THEY CHOOSE PUBLIC SCHOOLS. THEY CAN CHOOSE ART SCHOOL, MAGNET SCHOOLS, TRADITIONAL SCHOOLS. THERE IS NO REASON TO EXPAND THIS TO PRIVATE SCHOOLS WITH NO ACCOUNTABILITY, THEY ARE NOT ASKED TO PUBLIC RESULTS, THEY ARE NOT NECESSARILY TAKE THE SAME TESTS AND WHEN THEY DO, THEY PERFORM WORSE. THERE ARE PUBLICATIONS THAT SHOW ON THE NAPE TEST, VOUCHER SCHOOLS ARE PERFORMING LOWER THAN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. WE HAVE SEEN A FAILED VOUCHER EXPERIMENT IN LOUISIANA, MICHIGAN, AND NOT ONLY DO THE SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE VOUCHERS CRUMBLE, BUT THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS AROUND THEM CRUMBLE AS WELL.

Ted Simons: RESPOND, PLEASE.

Matt Ladner: THE HISTORY IS DIFFERENT THAN THAT. THERE IS NO VOUCHER PROGRAM IN MICHIGAN, FIRST OF ALL. WE HAVE BEEN AT THIS HERE IN ARIZONA SINCE 1994. THE NAPE SCORES GO BACK BEFORE THEN. YOU CAN LOOK UP THE SCORES FROM 1992. THE NEWS BACK THEN WAS QUITE GRIM. THE LEVELS OF PERFORMANCE WERE LOW. THEY ARE MUCH HIGHER NOW. WE WERE NOT EDUCATION NIRVANA, BUT WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS AND THE MORE OPPORTUNITIES THE FAMILIES HAVE THE BETTER RESULTS WE SEE.

Ted Simons: IN THEORY. CRITICS SAY IT'S A MASSIVE DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH TO THE HAVES FROM THE HAVE NOTS. DO THEY HAVE A POINT?

Matt Ladner: NO. THE DISTRICT SCHOOLS ARE THE BEST FUNDED OPTION IN ARIZONA. THEY GET MORE FUNDING AND MORE FUNDING PER PUPIL THAN PRIVATE SCHOOLS BY A WIDE MARGIN. THEY ARE FUNDED AT A HIGHER LEVEL TODAY THAN IN THE PAST EVEN AFTER YOU ADJUST FOR INFLATION. PEOPLE CAN HAVE HONEST DIFFERENCES OF OPINIONS ABOUT HOW MUCH SPENDING SHOULD BE. THAT'S A SEPARATE QUESTION FROM SHOULD WE HAVE PARENTAL CHOICE.

Ted Simons: DO YOU THINK DISTRICT SCHOOLS ARE THE BEST FUNDED OPTION?

Beth Lewis: I DON'T KNOW IF WE ARE COMPARING. THERE ARE DISCREPANCIES THERE. 49TH IN THE COUNTRY, HOW MUCH WORSE CAN IT GET? 50TH IN THE COUNTRY. IT WOULD TAKE US 400 PER PUPIL A YEAR TO GET US TO 47TH IN THE COUNTRY. THERE ARE BILLIONS GIVEN AWAY TO BUSINESSES EVERY YEAR. THEY REFUSE TO STAND UP TO DARK MONEY, SPECIAL INTEREST IN OUT OF STATE WHO DEMAND THE MONEY INSTEAD OF PUTTING IT INTO SCHOOLS.

Ted Simons: WE HAVE 30 SECONDS LEFT. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE ANGER FROM THOSE THAT SIGNED THE PETITIONS?

Matt Ladner: I UNDERSTAND IT'S A TOUGH DECADE FOR SCHOOLS IN ARIZONA. I WILL SAY THAT WHAT PEOPLE NEED TO UNDERSTAND, ARIZONA IS AN UNUSUAL STATE. WE HAVE AN UNUSUALLY SMALL WORKING AGE POPULATION. WE ARE NOT A WEALTHY STATE AND WE DECIDE SCHOOL SPENDING DEMOCRATICALLY.

Ted Simons: WE HAVE TO STOP IT THERE. THANK YOU BOTH FOR BEING HERE. >>COMING UP ON "ARIZONA HORIZON," WE'LL SPEAK WITH MARCUS COLLINS, A MEMBER OF THE TEXAS TENORS, THAT'S NEXT.

A law that would have expanded Arizona’s school voucher program was put on hold Tuesday after a volunteer group gathered enough signatures to call for a potential referendum. Beth Lewis, chair of the group Save Our Schools, and Matt Ladner, Senior Research Fellow at The Charles Koch Institute will join us to discuss this.

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In this segment:

Beth Lewis: Chair, Save Our Schools
Matt Ladner: Senior Research Fellow, The Charles Koch Institute

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