Legislature pushing back against efforts to boost school choice, ending common core



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PHOENIX — Despite the popularity of such moves with conservative Republicans, efforts to stop the state's new Common Core standards and expand school choice have hit roadblocks in the Legislature this week.

The Senate derailed by a wide margin a plan to end the state's Common Core standards and allow districts to adopt their own standards. The 10-19 loss for Senate Bill 1458 by Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, is the second year in a row that the Senate turned away efforts to ditch the standards.

The House voted once to a kill proposal expanding the state's tax credits for donations to private-school scholarship programs, run through a program known as School Tuition Organizations. Objecting Republicans then extracted promises from its sponsor to look at overhauling the entire program because of its costs before allowing a different bill about School Tuition Organizations to advance Wednesday.

Objections to an expansion of the state's voucher program, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, also hit a snag, with House votes repeatedly delayed. The efforts to block the bills in both chambers drew Democrats and a handful of Republicans — enough to overcome the conservative wing of the Republican majority.

Taken together, the failures show the Legislature as a whole doesn't appear keen on ditching the Common Core standards adopted in 2010 or in adding more avenues for school choice at a time when public schools are struggling with years of funding cuts and the state budget faces a big deficit. The failures also indicate that Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's proposal to keep school funding flat while forcing more money into classroom spending instead of support services like busing, counselors and administrators may face challenges.

Ward's bill to ditch Common Core state standards and give local districts the right to adopt their own standards failed Monday. That came the same day the House voted against a small expansion of the state's School Tuition Organizations program despite pleas from the sponsor that it didn't expand the state's cost for the program.

Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, said Wednesday that he has agreed to allow amendments addressing transparency concerns when the Senate takes up his House Bill 2153. That bill allows small corporations to get tax credits for donations to School Tuition Organizations. He agreed to ditch his House Bill 2152, which would have allowed companies that pay luxury tax on alcohol to take tax credits for donations to School Tuition Organizations. It initially failed early in the week.

The bigger issue for opponents is the overcall cap on the size of the program, which rises 20 percent per year, and the 10 percent administrative fees the School Tuition Organizations can take from the donated money.

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she agreed to support Olson's bill if he opens negotiations on the overall program.

The annual increase would bring the program's total take of tax revenue from $57 million this year to nearly $110 million in four years and more than $660 million by 2030. Opponents say the time isn't right to expand the program.

"We've got to come to terms with the loss of revenue that is having a devastating effect on our kids," said Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson.

Carter led the Republican charge against the bills. She said she has concerns that Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are being expanded far beyond their original intent to help underserved students and that expanding School Tuition Organizations could drain money from public schools.

"I strongly support school choice," Carter said in an interview. "And so when over 80 percent of the students in schools have chosen their local public district schools, we have to make sure we are putting forth policy that serves the entire education system and not one particular program over another."

The House has its own bill to eliminate the Common Core awaiting floor debate. At a Republican caucus meeting Tuesday, Majority Whip David Livingston urged members of his caucus who may not support it to talk with the sponsor of HB 2190, Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley, before floor debate.

"I think this is a critical bill," Livingston told his caucus. "I think it is critical in my view as a leader that we do everything we can to honor our conservatives in the state of Arizona and send this over to the Senate. It will have a very difficult time in the Senate as well."

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