- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday defended his decision to sign a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program, saying the state can invest more money into public K-12 education while adding reforms like the voucher program.

The throaty defense of the legislation signed by the Republican governor last week came a day after he met with six state teachers of the year. One said after the meeting that the governor had “played” them about his public education goals during last year’s campaign to pass a school funding initiative known as Proposition 123. The voter-approved measure tapped the state trust land fund for an extra $3.5 billion over 10 years for K-12 schools.

A letter the teachers gave Ducey talked about a statewide teacher shortage and said “funneling public money into private hands with a total lack of oversight will only exacerbate that crisis.”

“It’s hard not to feel betrayed when we went out and stumped for 123,” Beth Maloney, the state’s 2014 teacher of the year, told KPNX-TV Monday. “People voted for 123 because we said it was a good idea, it was something that we could back. And now there is a very real sense that we got played. I think the taxpayers of Arizona just got played.”

Ducey said Tuesday he listened to the teachers’ concerns and told them the state can do reforms like voucher expansion while still adding more resources to K-12 education. He said he did not deceive teachers about his backing of school vouchers.

“That’s just not true, and I think you’re taking words out of context,” Ducey told reporters. “They do expect more, I expect more as well. And I’m going to be working with the legislature so we can get every available dollar into K-12 and into the classroom and into teacher salaries.”

The measure Ducey signed last week extends eligibility in the state’s private school voucher program to all 1.1 million students over the coming four years. It has a growth cap that will allow at most about 30,000 students to use state cash for private or religious schools by 2022.

Democrats and a handful of Republicans opposed the legislation, with many worrying that the cap was a deception that would quickly be repealed. The Goldwater Institute, the conservative group that designed the “Empowerment Scholarship Account” program first adopted in 2011, fed that concern immediately after the House approved the bill Thursday afternoon.

“Fifty years in the making, and tonight we closed the deal!” Goldwater CEO Darcy Johnson wrote in an email to supporters. “There is a cap at 5,000 new kids per year; we will get it lifted.”

In the House Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Lela Alston lamented the bill’s passage, saying she was “grieved, I’m saddened, I’m afraid that these funds that are going to be going to private school education will not be available to our public schools districts and schools, for which we have a constitutional responsibility.

Alston also blasted the Goldwater statement, saying House members had ignored warnings and would come to rue the day they voted for the bill.

Ducey said repealing the caps is “not even a consideration.” But he refused to rule out ever removing it.

“What I’m going to commit to is that I’m going to do more of what works and I’m going to stop doing what doesn’t work,” he said. “But there’s no plan or no intention to do that whatever.”

Since Arizona first passed a voucher program for disabled students in 2011, it has expanded to cover about a third of all students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Indian reservations, foster children and children of military members. The new expansion goes into effect before the school year begins in the fall.

Ducey called the law another choice for parents.

“This is a law that already exists, this is a program that is gradual, it’s a program that is capped, it’s a program that was done with the input of a very thoughtful legislator who provided an amendment that was a compromise,” he said.

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