Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill this week that will allow students to pay for a private education using public funds.
The legislation, which Brewer enacted Monday, extends the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to children attending schools that have received a poor grade from the state. The bill’s provisions also extend the accounts to children of active military service members and foster children who are in the process of being adopted.
Students can apply debit cards toward textbooks and tutoring. Any unspent funds can go toward the student’s college education.
That means more children are eligible for the state program in which parents of disabled students receive vouchers for 90 percent of the state’s basic per-student funding for public schools, The Arizona Republic reported.
Supporters said the statute will give students more education choices. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that helped write the bill, estimated eligibility could double from 125,000 students to 230,000. That figure includes 21 percent of students in the public school system.
Several groups, including the Arizona School Boards Association, are suing the state over the program. They argue the program violates the state constitution because public money is going to private schools.
“It is a voucher. This is trying to get the camel’s nose under the tent,” said Chris Thomas, general counsel for the association. “You find a sympathetic group from a political and public-relations standpoint and then get a program for them. Establish legal precedence. Broaden it to everyone.”
Families will be able to apply for the expanded accounts this fall. Only 150 students are participating this year.
The governor vetoed similar legislation in April. That bill called for the inclusion of students enrolled at a public preschool who transfer to a private one.
At the time, Brewer said she was concerned about the costs for the state before a new state budget had been approved. She also expressed unease about changing the education system in ways that made parts of it uncompetitive.
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled earlier this year that the accounts do not violate the state constitution because parents receive the money first and decide how to spend them. The ruling is being appealed.