PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona House Republicans on Wednesday pushed ahead with their new plan to universally expand the state’s private school voucher program that they tied to new funding for schools in a bid to prevent an electoral referendum.

Majority Republicans see the effort as the culmination of more than a decade of work to expand parents’ ability to bypass traditional district schools and autonomous charter schools and allow parents to use the public money to pay school fees in religious or private schools.

But public school advocates slammed the proposal at a press conference held just before the House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on the proposal and eventually presented it to the full House. House in a 6 to 4 vote.

They argue that Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expansion just four years ago and that the state’s public schools remain woefully underfunded despite new spending approved by the Legislature and the Republican governor. Doug Ducey in recent years.

“We must prioritize fully funding our public education system,” Tempe educator Rodrigo Palacios said at the press conference. “Siphoning desperately needed funds from public schools by funding an expansion of voter-opposed vouchers … runs counter to the wishes of Arizonans and the needs of our families.”

Palacios was joined by other speakers at the event organized by education groups, including Save Our Schools Arizona, which was formed to oppose the latest expansion of universal school vouchers enacted by the legislature. .

Save Our Schools executive director Beth Lewis, a public school teacher, later told the committee that all she heard from Republicans on Capitol Hill was criticism of public schools and public school teachers.

“It’s deployed time and time again to sell private school vouchers under the guise of choice,” Lewis said. “These vouchers are a ploy to line the pockets of the rich.”

She called the voucher program, officially called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, “a scam.”

The proposals are championed by House Majority Leader Ben Toma, who said he worked for months to craft the “school choice” proposal and disputed that the 2018 vote showed Arizonans did not want an expansion of the ESA program.

“Yes, voters invalidated a flawed solution,” Toma said. “It’s very different and the situation is very different now than it was then.”

The Arizona constitution allows opponents of laws enacted by the Legislative Assembly and signed by the governor to block them by collecting the signatures of 5% of qualified voters. If they do, the measure is listed on the next general election ballot. The previous expansion was rejected by two-thirds of voters in the state.

The new voucher expansion proposal contains a poison pill designed to prevent this effort. It is tied to funding for new schools, $200 million in ongoing cash, and an additional $200 million in one-time money, and that funding will only be allocated if the voucher expansion is signed into law and goes into effect.

Democrats, united against the voucher bill, liked parts of the school funding proposal. The $200 million in ongoing cash provides additional money to low-income schools called “opportunity weight” and increases funding for students who are just learning English.

“We really need to (give) more funding to students who are living in poverty and are getting free and discounted lunch,” said Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler of Paradise Valley. “So that’s a shocking inclusion in this bill and I’m glad to see it there.”

But she and other Democrats have criticized other parts of the school funding bill, including the $200 million in one-time cash and that while the voucher expansion will go into effect July 1, the new funding will not take effect until July 2023.

“Tying this to vouchers doesn’t make sense,” Tempe Democratic Rep. Mitzi Epstein said. “There is no relevant link in there except the political link.”

Toma defended tying the bills, noting that it is similar to normal budget negotiations and the related horse trade.

“In order to get my vote and many other Conservative votes on additional K-12 spending…we’re tying it to something else,” Toma said. “Overall, it ends up being something we can all support.”

The fate of the voucher expansion plan is uncertain, as Republicans only hold a one-vote majority in the House and Senate and there is at least one GOP member in both chambers who does not. has not pledged to support the measures. He has no Democratic support.

Republican Senator Paul Boyer said Wednesday he was considering the proposal but had concerns. And Rep. Michelle Udall said Tuesday she either wants more accountability than the limited testing currently in the plan or a lot more money for K-12 schools.

Finding money, for once, is not a problem. The state is sitting on an unprecedented surplus of more than $5.3 billion, even accounting for $1.7 billion in income tax cuts enacted by the Legislature against the United Democratic opposition. last year.