SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Valerie Shannon of Scottsdale, Arizona, said she's happy that both her children are able to attend public schools in the city.
She also looks forward to having more parental control over her children's education under a universal school choice program that begins in Arizona on Sept. 24.
However, all that might not happen if opponents of the law successfully garner the required 118,000 signatures to refer the matter to Arizona's secretary of state to suspend the legislation, and bring it to a statewide ballot vote in 2024.
"Special interests have long been [forcing] through bills expanding these [programs with the ultimate goal of dismantling the public education system and erecting a for-profit, taxpayer-funded system in its place," according to Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona.
SOS Arizona opposes an expanded Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) funding program for school choice in Arizona.
The group said on its website that Arizona's public school system already has ESA scholarships, as well as School Tuition Organization (STO) tax credits, programs that allegedly siphon public tax dollars into private school programs.
Children "are not getting the quality education they deserve" due to underfunding, SOS Arizona argues.
"Schools have been forced to slash budgets for teacher and staff salaries, programs, nurses, counselors, extracurriculars, advanced coursework, the arts, and more."
Decisions To MakeShannon said that an expanded ESA program enables parents to withdraw their children from public schools that may not work for them and seek better alternatives.
She said that parents are "increasingly looking to take more of the parental role," trying to fix a societal problem over a struggling education system.
"Maybe some kids need that."
Shannon, who has a child in 6th Grade and another in high school, said what students don't need are schools "stepping in as a second parent."
"They need to be taught basics. They don't need extra social workers. There is still a need for public schools," she told The Epoch Times, "but every kid is different. It's not one size fits all. I think this allows deciding what's best for kids."
According to the Arizona Department of Education, 49 public schools in the state received an "F" grade on a 2019 performance report card and were in danger of shutting down.
More than a dozen schools in Maricopa County—Arizona's most populous county—received a failing grade. They had to create a performance plan with the school improvement staff.
At the same time, 16 Arizona schools received "Ds" three years in a row, making them eligible to receive federal funding aid.
As an open enrolment state, Arizona's traditional public education system is still considered one of the best options by many parents.
Education 'Gold Standard'Speaking at Phoenix Christian Preparatory School, Gov. Doug Ducey said that Arizona's 1.1 million students could enroll in any school they want given universal school choice.
"Arizona is now the gold standard for educational freedom in America," Ducey said in an Aug. 16 statement. "Our kids will no longer be stuck in underperforming schools. We're unlocking their educational potential and advancing a bold new era of learning opportunities."
Ducey said the bill opens ESA funding to every K-12 student in Arizona. The program will provide $6,500 for each child yearly for a private school, homeschooling, micro-schools, tutoring, and any other service outside of the traditional public education system.
There are currently 691 school districts in Arizona—238 traditional districts, 429 charter districts, and 24 other education organizations.
While many parents prefer the traditional public school model, others feel the system doesn't allow them a voice in what children learn—where and how.
"I think many families love their public schools in Arizona and they're more than happy to stay there. Universal [school choice] gives families whose kids need something different," said Jenny Clark, a mother of five and founder of Love Your School in Arizona.
Clark launched the nonprofit education "concierge" service about four years ago to help parents find the school program that fits the needs of their children. The organization supports universal school choice and wants to spread the word.
She said the level of interest in universal school choice has been considerable since her organization's July 5 webinar that drew 440 in attendance.
"They're usually coming to us now because they have some sort of issue they're sorting out" regarding the ESA program.
"To me, school choice is important. We are dealing with a generation of students who, for various reasons, are not doing well [in school]," Clark told The Epoch Times.
"They're not doing well because of COVID. They're struggling academically and emotionally. We need to provide families with every option to find the school environment that works for their children.
Choice For ChangeClark said many Arizona public school systems oppose universal choice because it challenges the traditional education model.
Brad Scott of Prescott, Arizona, said that the public school system a community provides to its children is "critically important to the long-term success of the community."
In a letter to Prescott's school district board, Scott said his personal experience with the district is that funding is "not the only problem."
"Failures of leadership have trickled down from the administrative offices to the classroom," he said.
"The pandemic made matters worse."
However, Scott said his 8th Grade son was fortunate to qualify for ESA funding before it became available to all Arizonans.
"Because he did qualify, my wife and I removed our son from public school after the seventh grade, enrolling him in a private Catholic school. It was not an easy decision at the time, but in retrospect, we wish we had moved him years earlier."
Acknowledging a movement is underway to "kill" the expanded ESA program, Scott said Arizona families haven't even had the chance to experience universal school choice.
Safety FirstWhile many factors go into a parent's enrollment decision, school safety is one of the top concerns.
Texas Education Agency records show that withdrawals from public to home school were 40 percent higher in the spring of 2021 than the previous year, according to the Texas Home School Coalition (THSC).
"We often see a spike in homeschooling following a mass shooting. We also know that concern about safety and the school environment are reasons parents cite as the most important reasons they choose to homeschool," THSC spokesman Stephen Howsley said in a letter to The Epoch Times.
Even so, Howsley said the organization doesn't have definitive data on how the tragedy in Uvalde may be driving decisions to homeschool. Moreover, the state and federal data show that the rate of homeschooling families returning to public schools has not increased.
"Based on U.S. Census data, we estimate that there are currently 750,000 homeschool students in Texas. This is more than all private and charter school students combined," Howsley said.
He added that homeschooled students "significantly outperform" their public school peers on standardized tests. That fact is true regardless of the parent's education level, the family's income level, or the level of state regulation on homeschooling.
Clark said opponents of HB2853 in Arizona only support a traditional public school model.
"They're essentially not happy [that] parents will have this new choice. They are staunch supporters of a district-school-only model. They are very concerned they're losing funding if families go to different environments," she said.
"Our response is why—how? Do you think that many children suddenly are going to leave for an ESA?"
Decline To Sign is a grassroots organization that opposes the SOS Arizona signature drive while the clock winds down to the Sept. 24 deadline.
Clark said it remains unknown whether the group's efforts to suspect the bill will be successful.
"This is where they try to circumvent the natural political process," Shannon said. "Many parents are awake to poor student performance in public schools and paying attention. The legislature is doing what their constituents want them to do."
"If you don't like what your legislators are doing, then elect new ones."