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Arizona Democrats hope to pass fingerprinting, special ed reforms tied with ESAs

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(The Center Square) – Arizona House Democrats outlined their legislative priorities this session as they deal with a narrow Republican majority in the Legislature, but Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs remains at the helm.

During a news conference on Monday, they mentioned goals to cut prescription drug costs and water policy reforms, but the two of the most notable priorities will be to place further restrictions on the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, as well as protecting abortion access.

When it comes to ESAs, Democrats have maintained a critical tone of the Republican-touted program, but said they are hopeful when it comes to achieving some reforms.

“Well, I know that some of the provisions do have at least some bipartisan support. I know that there is at least some interest across the aisle to implement some kind of fingerprinting for adults in schools that are accepting ESA dollars,” Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said.

“I know also that there is at least a little bit of support for the provisions regarding our special education students. And beyond that, I’m not sure. I guess that’s what we’re gonna be figuring out over the next couple of weeks and months of where is the common ground in terms of just accountability and transparency,” she continued.

In the response to Hobbs’ State of the State address on Monday, Republican leadership took a hardline of support for ESAs, which became universal after former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation in 2022. Hobbs also pushed for greater “transparency and accountability” in her speech.

“I will not allow anything that would roll back or limit the ESA program that has enabled academic achievements for thousands of Arizona kids, no matter their zip code or household income,” Toma said, The Center Square reported.

State Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, told The Center Square in a statement last week that there are some “improvements” that could make the program better in reaction to the governor’s own ESA proposals.

“Arizona’s school choice program has garnered national attention as a standard of excellence because it provides families with educational freedom. I do believe there are some common sense improvements that can be made to the program to ensure student safety, protect the rights of students with disabilities, and level the playing field between public, charter and private schools,” Bennett, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, said.

“I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues this session to provide transparency and accountability, but we will not add layers of bureaucratic red tape, as some of the Governor’s proposals suggest, or discourage parents from participating in ESAs,” he added.

Regardless of the issue, bipartisanship could be the name of the game for Democrats to accomplish their goals this session. The House of Representatives currently has 31 Republicans and 28 Democrats, with one vacancy to be filled by a Democrat since the resignation of former Rep. Athena Salman. Meanwhile, the Senate has 16 Republicans and 14 Democrats, making for a two-seat Republican-majority in each chamber once Salman’s seat is filled, according to Ballotpedia.

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