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Save Our Schools Arizona
Weekly Education Report

56th Legislature, 2nd General Session
Volume 6, Issue 9• Week of March 4, 2024

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Vouchers for “Ghost Students” in AZ Fraud Scandal

This week, Attorney General Kris Mayes held a press conference to break shocking news: five people were indicted on charges of defrauding Arizona’s ESA voucher program of at least $600,000. Mayes outlined the scheme, revealing that the fraudsters created ghost students with forged birth certificates – children that didn’t exist –- and gave them fake disability diagnoses that would make them eligible for larger funding amounts.” 

This scam was not uncovered by Superintendent Horne’s ADE, but by a local credit union which saw unusual account activity and alerted the AG’s office. AG Mayes noted that while the fraud began a few years ago, it “ramped up” once vouchers were universally expanded in 2022, and the investigation is still ongoing. According to Mayes, “From what our investigators found there are very few controls and very little accountability in terms of analyzing birth certificates at the Department of Education, at analyzing determinations of disability.” 

This wild case underscores what we already know to be true: the complete lack of accountability and guardrails for the ESA voucher program has made it ripe for fraud and abuse, and Arizona taxpayers are on the hook. Arizona’s Republican lawmakers’ stubborn refusal to introduce any sort of accountability is leaving the program wide open for all-too-easy theft of our taxpayer dollars. Mayes decried the Legislature for creating a law with so few safeguards for state money: “I believe it is high time for the Legislature to put regulations in place to prevent the fraud we’re seeing today.”

Save Our Schools Arizona’s Director Beth Lewis noted that earlier revelations of extravagant expenditures were still legal under the program’s lax rules.: “Nothing about this scandal surprises me… We are the laughingstock of the nation.” 

As AG Mayes pointed out, “My overarching concern is this is a program that is easy to target for fraud… It was very easy for these individuals to do this. We have to ask the question, ‘Are others replicating this?'” 

This massive scandal comes in the wake of yet another indictment of three ESA voucher parents accused of defrauding the state of $87,000 by creating fraudulent ESA voucher-funded businesses. Arizonans should expect this to be a trend in coming months, as Mayes noted other ongoing investigations in the office on ESA voucher account holders and vendors.

It is far past time for Arizona lawmakers to reform and rein in out-of-control ESA vouchers! Tell them today at: bit.ly/VoucherReform

Maricopa Action Summit

**NEW** We’ve heard your calls and we can finally announce: the Maricopa Action Summit is happening!!! Join SOSAZ and many incredible partner organizations on Saturday, April 6, 2024 for a FREE and fun-filled day to grow your advocacy skills, make connections, and hear from incredible speakers!

Maricopa Action Summit

Saturday, April 6, 2024 – 8:00am-4:00pm – Tempe High School

REGISTER HERE

Actions You Can Take

🛑 Use Request to Speak on the following bills:

☎️ Call your House representatives and ask them to oppose SCR1007. The legislature must not clutter the ballot with measures that would harm our public schools. Contact information is here.

📧 Use our quick email tool to tell your lawmakers to vote NO on the current Prop 123 renewals moving in the Legislature and to work together for a bipartisan solution: bit.ly/Prop123Fix 

📧 Use our quick email tool to urge your lawmakers to reform and rein in out-of-control ESA vouchers! bit.ly/VoucherReform

👍 Need a RTS account? Sign up here. Want a refresher? Our friends at Civic Engagement Beyond Voting are hosting RTS trainings on Mondays at 6:30 PM through March 11. Sign up here

As the Legislature Turns

A Major Win!: Last week Sen. Ken Bennett courageously stood alone against his Republican colleagues, joining Democrats to defeat anti-trans “bathroom bill” SCR1013. This attack on vulnerable youth would have put schools in the impossible position of choosing whether to follow the measure, violating the US Constitution and Title IX, or disregard it to protect their transgender students. We are grateful to Sen. Bennett for doing the right thing despite pressure from his caucus. 

Sadly, There are Plenty More Bad Bills: SOSAZ is still tracking another 10 veto-proof ballot proposals. Some of these are being fast-tracked via “mirror” House and Senate bills, and one is being heard in committee this week. We encourage lawmakers to come to their senses and avoid cluttering up the ballot with so many destructive and unnecessary referrals.

Vacation Already?: Committee agendas are lighter than usual this week because nearly one-third of the House, led by Speaker Ben Toma, is taking an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. The move leaves that chamber without enough lawmakers to conduct business, effectively forcing a shutdown from March 6-10. (The few committees that do plan to meet will have to choose temporary replacement members in order to get anything done.) 

Many senators are loudly protesting the five-day trip, pointing out — correctly — that it looks bad to skip off work in the middle of the busy season as critical budget negotiations to address an urgent $1.7 billion shortfall are just beginning. Memories are short at the Capitol, though. Many of those same senators dragged out last year’s session until nearly August by voting to take several extended breaks

The Senate voted overwhelmingly to deny the House’s request to adjourn, choosing to continue committee hearings and regular floor action. The Senate will carry on and some House committees will continue to meet, but the House cannot conduct most regular business with a third of the body missing. 

Voucher Watch

💥 NEW: As school voucher lobbyists push universal vouchers across the country, the nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute (LPI) has issued a new report to shed light on the cost of Arizona’s budget-busting universal ESA voucher program, the most expansive in the nation. As the report shows, ESA vouchers are siphoning nearly $1 billion a year from Arizona’s budget with no caps on spending, no transparency and no accountability.

ABC 15’s Data Guru Garrett Archer took a dive into the new report, summarizing that ESA vouchers “cost about $500 more [than per-student costs] for district students.” He also pointed out that “the biggest group by far are students who were never enrolled in an Arizona public school before they became an ESA student… Since these students  were never part of the funding, they make up about $270 million net increase to the state’s budget.” The report only looked at numbers up to December 2023. Learning Policy Institute’s Michael Griffith points out that the program has been growing by about 350 students per week, which further increases the cost to the state. 

Griffith notes, “Something unusual about this program is that most programs that states run either have a cap in the total amount of people that can participate, or they have a cap in the cost — and that’s how you control cost to make sure you don’t break your budget. This program doesn’t.” 

Bills in Committee

SB1628, sponsored by Sine Kerr (R-25), would remove any reference to gender in Arizona law and replace it with “sex,” defined as the male or female label assigned to someone at birth. This narrow and inflexible definition of biological sex would eliminate any legal recognition of transgender people. Not only is there no evidence that transgender-friendly policies endanger anyone, transgender people face a much higher risk of violence, a risk that is elevated under restrictive policies like these. The law could also negatively impact schools’ funding sources. Title IX forbids schools from engaging in sex-based discrimination, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity; under this bill, schools could be put in the impossible position of violating state law or losing federal funding. Scheduled for House Judiciary Committee, Wednesday. OPPOSE. 

SCR1007, sponsored by Frank Carroll (R-28), would ask voters to ban “Arizona public entities,” including public schools, from signing contracts of over $100,000 with companies unless they agree not to “discriminate” against gun manufacturers. This would create new hurdles for Arizona’s neighborhood schools in everything from building facilities to purchasing supplies. Similar bills from previous years have been backed by the NRA. Scheduled for House Judiciary Committee, Wednesday. OPPOSE.

HB2629, sponsored by Ben Toma (R-27), would require schools to include at least 45 minutes of instruction on “the history of communist regimes around the world and the prevalence of poverty, starvation, migration, systemic lethal violence and suppression of speech under communist regimes.” State lawmakers shouldn’t be establishing curriculum; that should remain the purview of those trained in curriculum development who understand history and pedagogy. Furthermore, this is another unfunded mandate for public schools but not private, voucher-funded schools. Schools would be required to include this instruction on world history in all American (not world) Government courses required for high school graduation beginning in 2024-25. The bill specifies Mao, Stalin, Castro, Lenin, Pol Pot, and Maduro as topics. Scheduled for Senate Education Committee, Wednesday. OPPOSE.

HB2719, sponsored by Michael Carbone (R-25), would require school bond and override measures to have 60%+ voter approval in order to pass. In effect, this measure could stop school districts from ever passing desperately needed bonds or overrides again. The measure also applies to cities, counties, and community college districts. Scheduled for Senate Elections Committee, Monday. OPPOSE.

Introducing the Save Our Schools Arizona Legislative Bill Tracker! This is your one-stop shop for following the K-12 legislation lawmakers will be debating in the 2024 legislative session.

Click here or on the image above to access the tracker. This is a live link that will continue to be updated as new information becomes available. Bookmark the link so you can access the tracker anytime! 

Bills in Rules Committees

After being heard in Rules Committees on Monday, these bills will go through caucus meetings (usually on Tuesday) and then be brought to a full vote. Make calls to your senator and representatives to ask them to oppose.

 

SB1005, sponsored by Jake Hoffman (R-15), would ban the state, including public schools, from requiring “diversity, equity, and inclusion programs” for its employees, spending public funds on such programs, or setting policies to influence the composition of its workforce on the basis of race, sex, or color. Any employee required to participate could sue. Diversity, equity and inclusion is a philosophy designed to harness the differences, talents and unique qualities of all individuals; this bill pretends our differences don’t exist. Hoffman introduced the same bill last year, which failed to pass. Scheduled for House Rules Committee, Monday. OPPOSE.

SB1007, sponsored by Jake Hoffman (R-15), would put Arizona public school teachers (but not teachers at ESA-funded private schools) behind bars for up to two years if they so much as recommend a book to students that lawmakers consider too “sexually explicit.” This would attempt to build on a 2022 ban which has already essentially frozen the teaching of books like “The Color Purple,” “The Canterbury Tales” and “Atlas Shrugged,” preventing Arizona’s students from getting a well-rounded education. State law already makes it a felony to show pornography to children. Hoffman introduced the same bill last year, which failed to pass. Scheduled for House Rules Committee, Monday. OPPOSE.

SB1370, sponsored by Shawnna Bolick (R-2), would ban cities from requiring businesses run by youth under 18 to be licensed or pay sales taxes if they make under $10,000 per year. While no one wants to stifle entrepreneurship for young people, this bill removes requirements for licensure, potentially opening the door to exposing kids to predatory practices or exploiting kids. It also cracks the door open to rolling back child labor laws, as is happening in multiple other states. Scheduled for House Rules Committee, Monday. OPPOSE.

Maricopa Action Summit

**NEW** We’ve heard your calls and we can finally announce: the Maricopa Action Summit is happening!!! Join SOSAZ and many incredible partner organizations on Saturday, April 6, 2024 for a FREE and fun-filled day to grow your advocacy skills, make connections, and hear from incredible speakers!

Maricopa Action Summit

Saturday, April 6, 2024 – 8:00am-4:00pm – Tempe High School

REGISTER HERE

Upcoming Events

So, You Want to Run for School Board?

School Board Candidate Training

Wednesday, March 13 at 5:30 pm

Register HERE

*NEW* Check out SOSAZ’s updated Upcoming Events page to find all of our online and in-person events near you!

Public Schools Week 2024

#TeamSOSAZ had an amazing time celebrating Public Schools Week 2024! We’ll keep sharing more #PublicSchoolProud stories next week, but we wanted to take a moment to share all of the fun from this past week. Do you know a story you think we should spotlight? Send an email to tyler@sosarizona.org to let us know. 

On Monday, Governor Hobbs issued a proclamation declaring the last week of February Arizona Public Schools Week! Here is an excerpt: “All AZ children should have access to a quality, well-resourced public school in their neighborhood…. Public schools educate more than 90% of students and serve as the great equalizer for children — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, family income, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability.”

In honor of Public Schools Week, Governor Hobbs lit the Capitol’s Executive Tower RED in honor of our state’s public schools! Thank you, Governor Hobbs!

All throughout the week, we played Tic-Tac-Toe to showcase different ways you can support your community schools. Didn’t get a chance to complete your board this week? That’s alright, we guarantee that your local schools welcome your support year-round!

Thanks to the Phoenix Suns, we were able to give some amazing public school educators tickets to the Suns game on Thursday night! Ms. McClain has been a teacher since 2016 and also volunteers on the State Board Professional Practices Advisory Committee, has written a book on brain breaks, and has presented at teaching conferences. After supporting the Suns for years, this was her first time actually attending a game!

Ms. Sato was nominated by one of her students, who shared that she “loves going to sporting games and comes to her students’ games on the weekends and evenings to cheer us on. She’s been to my football games and flag football games even though they are far away. She deserves to have a fun night out because she works really hard for us.”

We wish we could fill the whole stadium with Arizona’s incredible teachers and staff! Thank you for all you do!

From everyone at Save Our Schools Arizona, Happy Public Schools Week!

We are excited to announce SOSAZ’s *NEW* Public Education Defense Fund, which will protect Arizona students’ right to a safe, quality, accessible public school in their community.

Every dollar contributed to this fund will go directly towards electing pro-public education candidates up and down the 2024 ballot, from school board to the state legislature. 

Donate to SOSAZ’s Public Education Defense Fund Today!

Building a strong Public Education Defense Fund is essential to fighting back against increasingly dangerous political agendas that threaten our students’ right to learn in safety, acquire a truthful understanding of science and history, and succeed in excellent public schools.

Your contributions will help us recruit, elect, and support public education champions running for local school boards and the Arizona state legislature, shifting the balance of power at the Arizona state legislature towards one that will prioritize, fund, and defend Arizona’s public school students, educators, and classrooms. 

Thank you for helping us work toward a future where a high-quality, fully-funded public education is available to all Arizona students.

Get Plugged In!

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