Voucher interest high among anti-mask mandate parents, to the dismay of Arizona public schools
If you’re a parent in Arizona and your child’s school requires students to wear masks, Gov. Doug Ducey is offering $7,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help you send your child elsewhere.
Interest in the program, and expansion of Arizona’s existing, state-funded school vouchers, has surged since the state began accepting applications in August. The Associated Press first reported that thousands of applications for the vouchers have already been started or completed by parents who object to mask requirements and other COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Ducey has criticized schools implementing those policies as “playing games.”
Critics say the governor’s unilateral expansion of Arizona’s vouchers, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, is another example of Republicans trying to undermine public education.
Republicans in Arizona have spent years methodically growing the pool of students eligible for vouchers, to the dismay of public school officials and advocates who’ve fought off some legislative attempts at expansion.
“Here we have what I perceive to be the governor advancing a political agenda and using public health mitigation measures to do it, and I find it to be highly objectionable. To put it mildly,” said Chris Kotterman, director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association.
One part of those objections is the source of the funds Ducey is using to help parents remove their children from public schools: federal funds that critics say is supposed to be used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The U.S. Treasury Department has said states shouldn’t use federal funds to prevent or discourage schools from trying to stop the spread of COVID-19. But so far, the federal government has not directly weighed in on Ducey’s voucher program.
Beth Lewis, a parent, teacher and leader of Save Our Schools Arizona, said school leaders who mandate masks are trying to keep kids in school.
“Governor Ducey has never met a crisis that he can't use to further his own agenda,” she said. “And this program feels especially shameless, because it's federal dollars that were earmarked to keep children in our school safe," Lewis said.
Julie Castillo said she’s conflicted about the mask mandates, because she understands that classroom learning is the goal. In August, the Flagstaff mother of three sent her two sons back to a northern Arizona charter school where masks weren’t required but were strongly encouraged.
A week later, that school, Mountain Charter School, joined dozens of others across the state in requiring masks, at least through Sept. 29 — that’s when a state law banning mask mandates in schools is scheduled to take effect.
“I think, honestly, the principal's heart was to keep school, not online — to keep school in school, present,” Castillo said. “And so for her, I think masks, if that's what's gonna keep everyone in school, she's gonna do whatever it takes.”
But Castillo felt like the school had stripped her of a decision she felt responsible for.
“That just closed my parent-involvement in my child's education, that I don't have a say, and that I don't know what's best for him,” she said.
She quickly enrolled her sons in a private Christian school, where masks aren’t required, even though she knows there’s a risk for more quarantines and remote learning.
Applications for roughly 2,800 students have been started or completed. Families must meet income requirements to get the vouchers — a family of four can’t make more than roughly $93,000 a year.
As the Associated Press first reported, funding all of those would cost about $20 million. That’s twice as much as Ducey has allocated from federal funds.
Ducey wouldn’t say if he’s interested in spending more dollars to cover the potential demand.
“What I want to make certain is any dollar that we do spend, we're doing it effectively with a return on the investment,” he said.
Public school advocates like Kotterman are concerned about what will happen after the pandemic, when masks are no longer necessary.
“If this is truly about masks, then it should be contingent on you know, once your school that you came from is no longer requiring masks, then you should have to go back,” Kotterman said. “But it's not really about masks. So that's not going to be the issue.”
Fewer students enrolled in Arizona public schools means less state and federal funding for those schools.
Several Republicans have already said they plan to make Ducey’s latest voucher expansion permanent.