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Critics Blast Arizona's School Voucher Offer As A Way To Avoid Mask Mandates

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

If you're a parent in Arizona and your child's school requires masks, Governor Doug Ducey is offering 7,000 bucks in federal COVID relief funds to help send that child elsewhere. Critics say it's another example of Republicans trying to undermine public education. Ben Giles with member station KJZZ in Phoenix, has the story.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Governor Ducey is using federal money to expand Arizona's existing state-funded vouchers, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DUCEY: Our kids need to get caught up, and they need to be in a place of learning that isn't playing games, but is actually paying attention to their communication skills, their analytical skills. And I think that the ESA model, if you look at that parents make good decisions for their children, is doing good work.

GILES: Trusting parents is a message that resonated with Julie Castillo. She liked the northern Arizona charter school her two sons were in because it allowed parents to be heavily involved. But in the second week of the school year, when it announced they were mandating masks...

JULIE CASTILLO: I was devastated.

GILES: Castillo said she understands why schools are turning to mask mandates.

CASTILLO: I think, honestly, the principal's heart was to keep school not online, to keep school in school, like present. And so for her, I think, masks - if that's what's going to keep everyone in school, she's going to do whatever it takes.

GILES: But to Castillo, whether her children wear masks, even if it means risking quarantines and more remote learning, is a personal decision that the school took away.

CASTILLO: That just closed my parent involvement in my child's education, that I don't have a say and that I don't know what's best for him.

GILES: Castillo quickly enrolled her two sons in a private Christian school - no masks required. The voucher would cover a year's tuition. Families must meet income requirements to get the vouchers. A family of four can't make more than roughly $93,000. Applications for roughly 2,800 students have been started or completed. As The Associated Press first reported, funding all of those would cost about $20 million. That's twice as much as Ducey has allocated from federal funds.

Florida is also offering private school vouchers to families who claim their children are being harassed by public school mask mandates, though it's not using federal funds to do so. Douglas Harris researches school choice at Tulane University. He says the pandemic presents new opportunities for school choice proponents.

DOUGLAS HARRIS: The general strategy for voucher advocates for many years has been to find small ways to introduce and expand those programs that fit some other political objective.

GILES: That angers Chris Kotterman, the head of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association.

CHRIS KOTTERMAN: Here we have what I perceive to be the governor advancing a political agenda and using public health mitigation measures to do it. And I find it to be highly objectionable (laughter) - to put it mildly.

GILES: The U.S. Treasury Department says states shouldn't use federal funds to prevent or discourage schools from trying to stop the spread of COVID-19. But so far, the federal government has not directly weighed in on Ducey using federal relief money to provide the $7,000 vouchers. Kotterman says he's also concerned with what happens after the pandemic, when masks are no longer needed.

KOTTERMAN: If this is truly about masks, then it should be contingent on, you know, once your school that you came from is no longer requiring masks, then you should have to go back. But it's not really about masks, so that's not going to be the issue.

GILES: Fewer students enrolled in Arizona public schools means less state and federal funding. Several Republicans have already said they plan to make Ducey's latest voucher expansion permanent.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Giles in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT MANGELSDORFF QUINTET'S "NOW JAZZ RAMWONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.