State Sen. Sean Bowie was all smiles two weeks ago when some Kyrene School District children  visited the Capitol, but he wasn’t smiling last week when the Senate expanded school vouchers.

Ahwatukee’s two legislators were on opposite ends of the debate over Arizona’s universal voucher plan approved last week – and the one on the losing side on Monday apologized to his constituents for its passage.

Republican state Rep. Jill Norgaard cast her vote in favor of the bill, which got the bare minimum 31 votes it needed to passage in the state House, while Democrat Sen. Sean Bowie’s vote against it still couldn’t stop it from getting the minimum 16 votes it needed for Senate approval.

Bowie said that after the vote on Thursday, April 6, “I honestly questioned whether politics was worth it anymore.”

Noting he opposed expansion of Arizona’s voucher system, he said, “The premise – that public dollars would be used to fund private education, with far less oversight and accountability than public schools, with the dollars largely going to high income households – struck me as troublesome.”

“After all we’ve achieved over the years, and all the work we’ve put in to get here, if we can’t stop the bills that mean the most to us, what’s next? And is it worth the fight and the sacrifice?” he wrote in his weekly letter to constituents.

“I’m still questioning it as I type this,” Bowie continued. “I love my job, love representing my district, and love working on good public policy that helps our state. At the same time, when you put your heart and soul into something every single day, and worked really, really hard to get here, defeat hurts. A lot.

“To everyone who followed the vote on Thursday, I’m sorry we let you down. I’m sorry we couldn’t round up the votes to defeat the bill. I’m sorry we didn’t win enough seats in the election last year to prevent bills like this from passing.”

Norgaard said she felt a compromise amendment crafted by state Sen. Bob Worsely eased her concerns.

“District 18 has fantastic teachers in district public, district charter, online and private schools,” she said, adding:

“I find it unlikely that there will be a mass exodus from our district schools in that our students’ needs are being met there...To assert that the public district and charter schools in LD18 are going to be decimated is not a real fear.”

Meanwhile, an architect of the measure was already looking last week to undermine the key provision of the compromise that secured the votes for the programs expansion.

In a message to financial supporters late Thursday, Darcy Olsen, chief executive officer of the Goldwater Institute, said those who want to give more state money so parents can send their children to private and parochial schools should not be dismayed about the enrollment cap of about 30,000 that is in the final version of the bill.

“We will get it lifted,’’ Olsen said.

Olsen didn’t even wait until Gov. Doug Ducey had penned his approval hours later to the delicately crafted deal, a deal in which the Goldwater Institute participated.

The comments angered Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who brought all the interests together and corralled the votes.

“I just think it’s deplorable that she would put that in print,’’ he told Capitol Media Services. And Worsley said what’s worse is that Olsen was involved in the talks.

“She was negotiating in bad faith with us if that was her intention,’’ he said.

Olsen was not available to comment. In her place, Goldwater President Victor Riches told Capitol Media Services that her message, meant for long-time donors, should not be taken as a vow to start working to remove the caps – at least not yet.

“It was probably not very artfully worded, I would say,’’ Riches said.

But Riches, who acknowledged Goldwater’s role in the final deal, would not commit to waiting that full six years the deal limits enrollment before trying to get the cap removed.

“We’re not interested in making any changes right now,’’ he said, adding that he could foresee a scenario where waiting makes no sense.

“Let’s just say the present cap is hit and there is 20,000 people on the equivalent of a wait list,’’ he said. “Would we want to reevaluate that? Yes.’’

Worsley said that is directly contrary to the whole purpose of cap, which would be about 30,000 by the 2022- 2023 school year. He said the next six years are designed to be an “experiment’’ to see if it’s appropriate to keep the cap, increase it, or get rid of it entirely.

He said the six-year period gives the Goldwater Institute and other supporters of vouchers “plenty of freedom’’ to make the case for further expansion.

And Worsley had a message for the institute and anyone else who intends to try to make changes before then: “That will not happen while I’m in the legislature.’

But here’s the thing: With term limits, Worsley can serve in the Senate only through 2020.

Someone who could be here longer is Ducey. If reelected next year, his term would run through 2022.

What makes Ducey’s views so significant is that the ability of Olsen to pull apart the deal and scrap the caps could be dependent on whether the governor goes along.

The Goldwater Institute has links with the governor.

Riches had previously been Ducey’s deputy chief of staff. Christina Corieri, Ducey’s education policy, came from the Goldwater Institute.

Ducey tapped Clint Bolick, Goldwater’s vice president for litigation, as his first pick for the Arizona Supreme Court.

The caps Worsley wants protected are the centerpiece of the deal.

Arizona has had vouchers since 2011 when lawmakers agreed to give money to parents of students with special needs who say their youngsters cannot get their needs met in public schools. Since then there has been incremental expansion to cover children on Indian reservations, students in schools rated D and F and foster care children.

All along, there have been caps, currently about 5,000 students a year, though only about 3,800 have enrolled.

Those caps, however, had been set to self-destruct after 2019.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, sought to remove all those limits on who was eligible, entitling 1.1 million students in Arizona to a state-funded voucher, formally known as an “empowerment scholarship account,’’ to attend a private or parochial school.

That proved unpalatable to a majority of lawmakers.

The new law Worsley shepherded through the legislature on Thursday phases out all of the restrictions between now and 2021 on who can seek a voucher.

On paper, that would make all public school students eligible for a voucher. But under the deal, the caps would remain, though they would increase slowly to about 30,000 by the 2022-2023 school year.

-Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.

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(1) comment


Ahwatukee has three people representing it in the Arizona State Legislature, not two. The third is state House Representative Mitzi Epstein, a Democrat who voted against school vouchers along with Senator Bowie. You should run a correction, and you need to know this as reporters covering this area.

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