Lawmakers OK on plan to divert tax dollars for private, parochial schools
PHOENIX -- State lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to legislation to create yet another program to divert tax dollars to help some students pay the costs of going to private and parochial schools.
The measure, approved by the House and Senate largely along party lines, is designed to replace a system of direct vouchers that used state tax dollars to directly pay the tuition and fees of about 400 students with special needs who wanted to go somewhere other than public schools. The state Supreme Court ruled in March the vouchers, approved by lawmakers in 2006, violate constitutional provisions that bar direct state aid to private and parochial schools.
This new plan instead relies on donations from corporations and insurance companies to organizations that, in turn, would provide scholarships for those students who lost their vouchers and others with similar handicaps or who had previously been in foster care. But the donations cost the companies nothing: They can claim a dollar-for-dollar credit against what they owe in state income taxes.
At the insistence of Gov. Jan Brewer, who supports the plan, backers of the plan limited the total credits that could be claimed to $5 million a year, the same amount the state was providing in vouchers.
But that is on top of two existing programs that already provide more than $60 million a year in tax credits. And sponsors said they see this new program as just another step to divert dollars that otherwise would wind up in the state treasury to help students opt out of public schools.
"It saves the state money,' said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. He said the amount of any scholarships awarded cannot be higher than 90 percent of what the state would pay in aid to a public school for the same student.
Foes, citing the existing tax credits, said this new law just increases the amount of money being siphoned off which could be used for other purposes, including restoring some of the cuts already made this year in funding for public education.
They also questioned the claim of savings, a claim based on the assumption that students getting scholarships to go to private and parochial schools would otherwise be attending public schools.
Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, unsuccessfully sought to add a provision requiring the state to track the students getting the scholarships to see if they were, in fact, transfers from public schools.
"We should not be afraid of knowledge and afraid of transparency,' he said.
But Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said the question of saving money is only part of the reason the tax credits make sense. He said scholarship programs empower parents to make choices for their children.
And Kavanagh said providing those choices "injects healthy competition into an educational system that should always be striving to do better.'
But Rep. Eric Meyer, R-Scottsdale, questioned whether lawmakers were more interested in getting students out of public schools than providing better education for all.
"This bill is yet another nail in the coffin of public education,' he said.
Meyer, a member of the board of the Scottsdale Unified School District, said the move to provide expanded tax credits comes on the heels of the Legislature cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to public schools.
And several Democrats said the whole system of tax credits for scholarships, which they see as indirect state funding of private and parochial schools, lacks the same oversight and accountability as exists for public schools.
Rep. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, rejected that contention.
"The fact of the matter is, it has the ultimate protection for the students in it already,' he said, with parents searching out the schools they believe are most appropriate for their youngsters and then applying for scholarships to help pay the tuition.
"With public schools, you don't have that most of the time,' Murphy said. "You just land where you land.'
And he said if that private school doesn't provide the education needed "they're going to take their student to someplace that will.'
Republicans rejected various other amendments offered by Democrats, including one by Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, which would have required a public report of where students who get the scholarships live. She said she wants to be sure that students statewide are benefiting and not just those from a few select areas.