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House Ways and Means Committee show support for 'empowerment scholarships'

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers took the first steps Monday to eventually allowing all 1.1 million children in public schools to get vouchers of tax dollars to attend private and parochial schools.

On a 5-3 vote the House Ways and Means Committee agreed to allow what are called "empowerment scholarships' beginning next school year for any child attending kindergarten through fifth grade. These scholarships are roughly equivalent to what the state would provide in aid for a public school.

That would expand through eighth grade the year after that, and all grades in the 2019-2020 school year.

These vouchers originally were enacted for students with special needs. But lawmakers have slowly expanded it to include foster children, children of members of the military, children attending a school rated D or F by the Department of Education and, most recently, children living on Indian reservations.

Sydney Hay who lobbies for the American Federation for Children, said those limits, which have resulted in only about 2,400 youngsters getting vouchers, are too restrictive.

She told lawmakers there are lots of reasons that a parent may decide a child would do better in a private or parochial school.

"Maybe it's not working for them because they're being bullied,' Hay said. "Well, that's not eligible.'

Ditto, she said, for students who may need more structure.

"There could be any number of reasons why parents need this program,' Hay said.

There is a restriction that requires a student to have attended a public school for one year.

But Mark Barnes of the Arizona School Administrators Association, said that's still leaves the door open for state tax dollars to help pay for private schools for students whose parents would have sent them there anyway. He said simply having a child go to kindergarten meets that requirement.

Janice Palmer, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, warned lawmakers of the financial implications.

"How are we going to fund this?' she asked lawmakers. Palmer said as limited state dollars go out the door in the form of vouchers there will be pressure to reduce spending on public education and health.

But Michael Hunter who lobbies for the Goldwater Institute said those fears are unwarranted. He told lawmakers he expects that most children will continue to want to go to public schools, whether traditional district schools or charter schools.

The measure now goes to the full House.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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