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Despite Nasty Fight, Arizona Moves Into Era of School Choice

"Minnesota woman" Tnuza Jamal Hassan (Ramsey County Sheriff's Office via AP)

Despite the efforts of people like Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education who said it would allow private enterprise to profit at the public trough, and Democrat Rep. Jesus Rubalcava, who said he wanted to throat punch the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Debbie Lesko (R), Arizona now is a state of choice when it comes to the education of children.

Senate Bill 1431 expands eligibility for Educational Savings Accounts in Arizona to all students in the state. It will be phased in over four years. The money can be spent on a full menu of choices, Lesko said, including private schools.

“The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by what neighborhood their parents can afford to live in,” said Gov. Doug Ducey (R). “When parents have options, kids win.”

So, with Ducey’s signature on SB 1431 on April 7, every schoolkid in Arizona — all 1.1 million of them — are now eligible to receive state money to pay for private education. However, not every Arizona child will be able to switch over to their parents’ school of choice immediately.

There is a limit of 5,500 students who can enroll in a private school with state money every year, up to a cap of 30,000 in 2022. That was a deal forged in the legislature to get the proposal approved.

It makes Arizona the second state in the nation to offer what is considered to be a “near-universal” school choice program by its proponents. Nevada has a similar law, but it is being held up court appeals.

Arizona courts have already indicated SB 1431 is within the state’s constitutional standards.

However, Republican-sponsored budget cuts have made the very idea of “school choice” a scam, wrote Arizona Daily Star columnist Sarah Garrecht Gassen.

“In the practical application, ‘school choice,’ is code for ‘anywhere but your neighborhood school operated by a school district with an elected school board,’” Gassen wrote. “For there to be a choice, one needs multiple good options on the table. Anything less isn’t a choice, it’s a stacked deck.”

Other opponents warn now that Arizona is the “Mecca of School Choice,” as Carol Burris wrote in an Arizona Capitol Times opinion piece, “for-profit charters and non-profit ‘fronts’ for for-profit charters” will flood the state with very little oversight or even the slightest bit of regulation.

What really burns Burris is that under the new law, there is no penalty for charter school operators who fail.

“In fact, it is an opportunity for enrichment,” Burris wrote. “All property belongs to the charter owner by law. That means taxpayer-funded buildings, books, computers, and equipment go to the owner of the failed school, which he can sell.”

Burris admitted it would be possible to fix the legislation so that more oversight was written into the law. But then she opined, “Why do we need all of these parallel school systems, with layers of administration and oversight?”

Even though the embers of the school choice debate may have died down until the devil in the details arises, what Rep. Rubalcava wrote on Facebook about punching Lesko in the throat has not gone away.

He posted the throat-punch comment in response to a constituent who said he was bothered by Lesko’s victory dance after the school-choice legislation was approved.

At first, Lesko said Rubalcava’s throat-punch Facebook comment didn’t bother her too much. But, the Democrat issued a statement to the Arizona Republic in which Lesko mentioned her survival of an abusive relationship.

“As a survivor of domestic violence from a previous marriage, Representative Rubalcava’s Facebook post saying ‘I wanted to punch her in the throat’ was very disturbing and totally inappropriate especially since he is an elementary school teacher and legislator,” Lesko wrote. “I hope in the future that he debates issues based on their merit in a civil manner.”

Rubalcava’s Facebook threat to punch her in the throat was taken down. He also apologized on the floor of the state House, telling his colleagues that his mother had raised him better than that.

“My comment was definitely unprofessional, and it was unacceptable,” the Arizona Republic reported he said. “And I want this body to know that I have apologized to Sen. Debbie Lesko for my comment, and I sincerely apologize, I want this body to know.”

He also crossed the floor of the House and shook Lesko’s hand as he apologized in person.

But that wasn’t good enough for fellow Republican Rep. Maria Syms, who said as far as she was concerned Rubalcava’s comment “transcends politics or party.”

“It takes a small man to fantasize about violence against women on social media, and nothing less than zero tolerance is acceptable,” said Syms in a statement. “I have this to say to Mr. Rubalcava – for myself and all the women and victims of violence: apology not accepted. Mr. Rubalcava is showing himself unfit for public office.”

Still, throat punches aside, what really scares opponents and thrills proponents of school choice in Arizona is what the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke wrote in the Daily Signal.

She said Arizona may have shown the way to other state legislatures to open their minds to the possibilities offered by school choice.

“The education savings account waters have been tested, and are indeed warm,” Burke wrote. “It’s time for other states to come on in and embrace the future of school choice.”