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Panels approve voucher legislation in special session

House and Senate panels have approved legislation that would create tax credits for people and businesses that donate money to provide private-school scholarships to foster kids and handicapped students.

The bills, which are being fast-tracked in a special legislative session that is running concurrent with the annual session, were praised by school-choice advocates and Republicans.

"This is an opportunity to give families more choices and help some of our state's most vulnerable citizens receive an education that better suits their needs, while saving the state money," said Sen. Thayer Verschoor, a Gilbert Republican and sponsor of S1001.

Peoria Republican Rep. Rick Murphy is sponsoring the House's version, H2001.

Democrat lawmakers, meanwhile, opposed the bills and said it is unwise to divert tax collections to private-school scholarships from the state's general fund while the state faces a $3 billion deficit.

Education advocacy groups, including the Arizona Educational Association, the state's largest teachers union, also opposed the measures.

Lawmakers decided to consider the legislation after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in March that a pair of voucher programs aimed at disabled and foster children violated the state's Constitution because they gave tax dollars to private and parochial schools.

However, the court allowed the students attending private schools on the state-funded vouchers to finish the school year. Supporters of the tax-credit legislation, which is modeled after a broader program that has been upheld by the courts, said lawmakers must act quickly to ensure the nearly 500 students receiving scholarships now will not be forced to return to public schools in the fall.

The House and Senate are both expected to act on the bills May 27. Gov. Jan Brewer, who called for the special session last week, has indicated she will sign the measure when it reaches her desk.

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