Sat, Dec. 07

State moves closer to allowing public dollars for private and parochial schools.

PHOENIX -- A House panel voted late Wednesday to let more than half the 1.1 million students in Arizona schools use public dollars to attend private and parochial schools.

The 8-5 vote by the Appropriations Committee follows the failure of supporters of vouchers to line up the votes in the House to open the door for all students. Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said she hopes this scaled-back proposal gains more support.

Lesko also crafted this version of SB 1279 to try to overcome opposition from those who say that the vouchers are used largely by families who already can afford to send their kids to private schools.

It limits eligibility to students whose family income qualifies them for free- or reduced-price lunch programs. For a family of four, that figure is $44,863 a year.

Stacey Morley, lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association, said the most recent figures show about 565,000 students participating in those programs.

But that may not cover everyone who would be eligible.

Morley said high schools are not required to have such programs. Nor are charter schools.

That means the number of children whose family income would qualify them could be higher.

Lesko told lawmakers they should not worry there would be a sudden flood of children, armed with scholarships worth about $5,400 a year, fleeing public schools and taking with them the state aid that had gone to those schools. She said state law limits vouchers to no more than one-half percent of public schools students, or about 5,500 youngsters.

But Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, pointed out that cap disappears after 2019.

And Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, conceded his goal is to eventually make vouchers available to every public school student in Arizona.

At the heart of the fight is who should be able to get what is formally called an "empowerment scholarship account.'

When the program was originally approved in 2011 it was limited to students with special needs.

Since then, however, lawmakers have approved a series of expansions. That includes foster children, children on Indian reservations and students attending schools rated D or F.

Lesko has made no secret she believes the vouchers should be available to all.

House Minority Leader Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said that ignores the effect on the public school system. He said as students leave, they take state aid with them.

What that does, said Meyer, is leave the schools less money in state aid for the students who are left. He said these are often the poorest children, those who parents can't afford to drive them to a private school.

"There will be a sucking sound to the general fund,' Meyer said, as more students decide to take those vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.

Lesko, however, bills the legislation as saving money. She said that $5,400 cost for the average base voucher -- disabled students get more -- is less than the more than $9,000 in taxpayer dollars that go to public schools for each students.

But that figure is a bit misleading, as it includes federal aid and local property taxes. The most recent figures for just state tax dollars is about $5,400 a student.

Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said it's wrong to look at how the legislation will affect the public schools who might lose aid because students decide to go elsewhere.

"It really comes down to that child, and what's best for that child,' he said.

"Those kids only have one life,' Gray continued. "One of the things I've heard is that if a child goes through two years at a bad school, their education is lost.'

Morley said, though, that unlike public schools, there is a "lack of accountability' in determining whether a child actually is performing well.

She also said the voucher system so far has proven to be a selective program. That's because the amount of the voucher may not cover what the private school is charging, meaning the only families able to use them are those who can afford to make up the difference.

Greg Wyman, superintendent of the Payson Unified School District, said he has already seen the result

"For K-12 education, the majority of our kids in our schools are minority students,' he told lawmakers.

"We are more segregated today than we were in the 1950s and 60s,' Wyman said. "The expansion of ESAs will continue that trend.'

One side issue is that vouchers are available to parents who opt to teach their children at home. And if parents do not spend the whole amount, they can save it from year to year -- and even bank the cash for college.

"I find that really troubling that we're paying college tuition for some people in Arizona,' said Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix. She said if the state has that kind of money it should be investing it in community colleges to help keep tuition affordable.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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