Mon, Dec. 09

Governor: Scholarship aid may be trimmed to heal ease budget woes

Gov. Jan Brewer

Gov. Jan Brewer

PHOENIX -- Gov. Jan Brewer said she is willing to consider limiting scholarships for students to attend private and parochial schools, which are funded with diverted tax dollars to those who can prove need.

The governor, unveiling a state web site Monday to help parents choose among schools, said Arizona is doing as much as it can for public education given the limited funds available. But she said some things had to be trimmed.

For example, her proposed budget for the coming year provides just $10 million for emergency maintenance to schools. The formula in law entitles schools to $243 million, though it is slightly better than last year when Brewer signed a budget with just $2.7 million.

And her budget proposal for next year, like the current budget she signed, does not fully compensate schools for higher inflation-based operational costs.

But Brewer also signed another measure last year which adjusts for inflation the amount of money that individuals can divert from what they owe the state to instead provide scholarships for students to attend private and parochial schools. And the version of the bill that reached her desk has no requirement that the money -- more than $50.8 million in 2009 -- be limited to those in need.

Questioned about the apparent dichotomy, Brewer responded that the state is in "a huge fiscal crisis.'

"And we're doing everything in our power to do the very best job that is possible with the dollars that we have,' the governor said.

But pushed further about allowing scholarships to go to students, regardless of income, Brewer responded "it is certainly something we probably should discuss.'

That flies in the face of a deliberate decision by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year to allow scholarships regardless of need.

And any change will get a fight from John Huppenthal, the new state school superintendent. He said there should be no "means testing' for these scholarships, any more than rich parents should have to pay public school tuition.

The original law, approved in 1997 law, provides a dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit for donations to scholarship organizations, up to $500 a year for individuals and $1,000 for couples. Each dollar of credit is one less dollar going into the state treasury.

Proponents said the amount of the credits is less than it would cost the state in aid if these students were in public schools.

But aside from the lack of a requirement to prove need, the funds also can go to parents who already were sending their children to private and parochial schools, with or without scholarship help.

Last year's changes could mean even more money diverted, requiring that the current $500 and $1,000 caps be adjusted annually -- and only upwards -- for inflation.

Huppenthal said the financial condition of a family is irrelevant to whether diverted state income tax dollars are used to send their children to private and parochial schools.

"Right now we have a lot of people benefitting from our public school system,' he said.

"We don't 'means test' public school,' Huppenthal continued, saying this is the same thing.

"I consider these (private school) students to be public students and part of the public school system,' he explained. "Our obligation to educate these kids extends to all of them.'

The entire question could become moot if the U.S. Supreme Court accepts the argument of foes of the credits that they are unconstitutional.

In a 2002 ruling, the high court upheld an Ohio law that provided vouchers of taxpayer dollars to parents to send their children to any school they want, even parochial schools. The justices said the program constitutes true private choice, in which parents decided where to use the vouchers.

But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in ruling the Arizona credits illegal, said what makes this different is that the organizations that accept the donations and give out the aid can decide where those scholarships can be used. And the largest organizations give scholarship vouchers to parents only if they agree to send a child to a religious school.

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