PHOENIX — A Republican gubernatorial contender wants to give vouchers to parents who don’t want their children in public schools where masks are required so they can instead send them to private or parochial schools at state expense.
And Matt Salmon says he wants Gov. Doug Ducey to call a special legislative session to put the proposal in place now.
The plan appears to have flaws, including that it would be virtually impossible for it to be enacted before a legislatively approved ban on school masks takes effect on Sept. 29, even assuming the votes were there. There’s also the fact that an aide to Ducey, who also opposes mask mandates and actually has the power to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol, declined to comment on the proposal.
A spokeswoman for Save Our Schools, an organization that has successfully fought back legislative proposals to expand vouchers in Arizona, accused Salmon, a former state and federal lawmaker who has voted for vouchers in the past, of “weaponizing a public health crisis.’’
Salmon, who made his proposal Friday in a press release, would not speak about his plan unless he was given questions in advance.
Running second in the race for the GOP nomination in a recent poll, Salmon on Friday claimed that school districts that are imposing mask mandates on children “are not only undermining confidence in the vaccine, but also hurting our children and interfering with students’ social development skills.’’
The Republican-controlled legislature did approve a new law forbidding schools from making the wearing of masks a condition for in-person instruction.
That is being challenged in court, at least in part because the statute is not effective until Sept. 29. Even after that, there may be legal arguments about its enforceability.
In the meantime, Salmon said the answer is giving parents options.
“Families across Arizona need to be able to vote with their feet if bureaucrats are seeking to score political points at the expense of our kids’ educational opportunities,’’ he said in his prepared statement.
The idea is not unique.
On Friday, the Florida State Board of Education agreed to provide vouchers to parents who contend that a mask mandate at a public school amounts to harassment of children. That comes after several districts there are defying a threat by Gov. Ron DeSantis to cut funding for schools that insist students be masked.
Salmon’s proposal drew derision from Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools, which has successfully fought legislative efforts to expand vouchers in Arizona, including getting a public vote to overrule a proposal approved by GOP lawmakers.
“We already know that voucher pushers will exploit any perceived disadvantage or barely-relevant situation to forward their extremist goals of destroying public education and instead creating a pay-to-play education model,’’ she said, accusing voucher supporters of “weaponizing a public health crisis.’’
Penich-Thacker said the whole suggestion is “comical.’’
She pointed out that several private schools that accept vouchers, like Brophy College Prep, are requiring not only masks but also proof of vaccination. In Tucson, Salpointe Catholic High School is mandating the use of masks on campus until the level of spread is reduced, though there is no requirement for vaccination.
This isn’t Salmon’s first public stance against masks. His campaign said he left Arizona State University, where he headed the lobbying team, earlier this year after the school imposed a mask mandate with which he disagreed.
Salmon is among several Republicans who each are seeking to appeal to the conservative wing of the party. And for each of them, that includes masks.
A recent poll by OH Predictive Insights shows former TV anchor Kari Lake having a more favorable impression among Republicans than Salmon. Lake already has staked out an anti-mask position.
“They have no proof that masks slowed down COVID in Arizona but they will use any excuse to mandate them,’’ she wrote in a Twitter post earlier this past week. And if that didn’t get the message across, Lake posted a photo of herself using a torch to set fire to a mask.
Karrin Taylor Robson, another gubenatorial candidate, also has staked out an anti-mask mandate.
“Children are not the problem when it comes to COVID-19,’’ she wrote in her own Twitter post.
“They should not be subjected to mask mandates, in schools or anywhere else,’’ Robson continued. “Let Arizona parents decide what is best for their kids.’’
Also in the hunt for the GOP gubernatorial nomination is businessman Steve Gaynor.
“I question the wisdom and health consequences of forcing children to wear masks for many hours at they attend school,’’ he said in a statement. “But parents and students are free to make that choice.’’
Gaynor said that schools have other methods of minimizing virus transmission including physical distancing and enhanced ventilation in classrooms.
In a prepared statement, state Treasurer Kimberly Yee said she is opposed to requiring students to wear masks to attend schools. In fact, she has a position somewhat similar to that of Salmon, albeit without the financial implications for the state.
“If parents don’t like what the school in their zip code is requiring with masks, they should enroll their child in a better school of their choice,’’ Yee said.
The political stances come as an increasing number of school districts — there are now at least eight — have approved mask mandates for students and faculty, at least through Sept. 29, with many board members pointing out their students younger than 12 are ineligible to be vaccinated.
It also comes as the Department of Health Services reported 2,926 new cases on Friday. That’s the highest number since Feb. 3, before the vaccine was generally available. The agency also reports that 20% of beds in intensive care units are occupied by patients with COVID-19, with the figure at 15% for in-patient beds.