By: Sarah Fisher

Arizona is plagued by a public education crisis. In 2022, a study performed by the personal financial service, WalletHub, ranked each state from best to worst public education based on thirty-two different metrics. Some of these metrics included test scores, dropout rates, bullying rates, access to illegal drugs, and more. Relying on these metrics, WalletHub found that Arizona ranked 48th out of 51 (including the District of Columbia). Arizona was ranked lower for having one of the highest student-teacher ratios, the highest dropout rate in the United States overall, and lack of licensed and/or certified primary and secondary education teachers. The latter is due in large part to Arizona’s new policy that does not require educators to possess a college degree to teach in the state, they need only be enrolled in a degree program. Additionally, Arizona was ranked 48th out of 51 based on the amount that the state government allocated to spend on public education.

There have been several proposed responses to this ongoing crisis. The leading solution was a bill introduced by Governor Doug Ducey in 2022 that would expand the state’s current private school voucher system. Specifically, the bill would allow parents in Arizona to apply for a voucher that would be credited towards the tuition at a private school, or an alternative educational program, of their choice. The funding for the vouchers is supplied by the same budget supporting Arizona’s public schools. Governor Ducey has now allowed all K-12 student to be eligible for nearly $7,000 per year per child for “private school, homeschooling, micro schools, tutoring and other educational services.” With this new legislation, approximately 1 million Arizona students would be able to receive the funding. The number of available vouchers could result in roughly $45 million in funding being redirected to the program and away from public schools.

The intent of the bill, and others like it around the country, is to allow for students in low-income and historically disadvantaged communities to have access to specialized education programs that require a tuition or payment. However, in anticipation of the program going into effect, Arizona families are already filing applications for the vouchers. According to the Arizona Department of Education, it received 6,494 applications, and of those applicants, three-quarters of the applicants have no record of enrollment at an Arizona public school. The obvious worry now, is that Arizona parents with the means to afford private education are still eligible to receive the voucher to bring down the overall price-tag. More importantly, the new voucher program detracts from the 12,000 children who are current voucher recipients under the old version of the program. These children come from low-income households and require special education or live in localities with public schools that have received poor ratings.

Despite this legislation being rejected by voters in the 2018 election, the bill introduced by Governor Ducey was pushed through the state legislature and passed on a party line vote. The last resort to halting the initiative is by referendum. Arizona voters have until September 24th to gather 118,823 signatures needed to pause the bill until voters can have a say as to whether it should become law in 2024. If the referendum does not come to pass, Arizona voters will still have the opportunity to vote for political candidates in the 2022 midterm election that favor better funding for public education.

Sarah is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. After passing the bar, she hopes to work in criminal defense. Within the topic of social justice, her interests include criminal justice reform, wrongful convictions, and advocating against capital punishment. Outside of the law, Sarah enjoys back country camping, trying (and mostly failing at) new recipes, and overindulging in political podcasts.