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School voucher expansion set for legislative votes

The Arizona Legislature is poised to vote on a major expansion of a school voucher program giving parents state money to pay their children’s private school tuition.

The Senate plans to debate Senate Bill 1236 on Wednesday, and the House will take up an identical measure, House Bill 2291, on Thursday. Final votes are expected this week.

The so-called empowerment scholarship accounts were created in 2011 as a small program to benefit children with disabilities. The program was expanded last year to include children from schools that have received a poor grade from the state, and to students with active military parents.

This year’s proposed expansion initially allowed as many as 850,000 of the state’s more than 1.1 million public school students to qualify.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said a planned amendment would cut that number to about 100,000 low-income students. A cap allows only an additional 5,400 students a year to use the vouchers.

Opponents say the program takes taxpayer money from public schools and gives it to private institutions that cannot be held publicly accountable.

But Lesko said Wednesday the cap on growth will keep program enrollment in public schools at about the same levels while giving parents added school choice.

“I understand that traditional public schools don’t want competition – after all when charter schools (laws) went through, the traditional public schools fought them tooth and nail,” Lesko said. “And as you know charter schools are very popular in Arizona. This is the same type of thing. It just gives another alternative to parents for their children.”

Democrats who oppose the program say it is likely Republicans could eliminate the cap as soon as next year.

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