Eight Republicans helped to reject a bill Thursday that would have sharply expanded a program that uses public money to send students to private schools.
The House turned down the measure on 27 to 31 vote. The proposal would have opened up the voucher-like empowerment scholarship account program to any children living in areas of the state where the average income is less than about $44,000 a year.
The bill, HB2291, would have made 112,000 students in lower-income zip codes eligible for the program. But hopes of expanding the voucher system are not entirely dead, and the bill will be reconsidered in the House next week.
An identical bill, SB1236, was approved in a voice vote in the Senate on Wednesday and still needs a final vote in that chamber and approval in the House to succeed. But passage of that bill is unlikely considering the House vote on HB2291.
Proponents argued that HB2201 would provide parents of needy children with additional educational opportunities.
The bill’s original form would have given as many as 800,000 students eligibility, but the mass expansion was politically unpopular among lawmakers. The scaled down version didn’t meet the seal of approval for moderate Republicans either.
“Parental choice begins with well funded well functioning schools,” said Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson.
Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, said the proposed expansion was too much too fast.
Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said the state’s school choice policies don’t help children in rural areas because the choice options aren’t there.
She said the initial intent of the program was designed for children with unmet needs.
“I want to make sure everybody here realizes I supported the ESA accounts as they were originally marketed,” Carter said.
Other Republicans to vote against the measure were Bob Robson, Chandler; Doug Coleman, Apache Junction; Kate Brophy-McGee, Phoenix; Frank Pratt, Casa Grande; and Thomas Shope, Coolidge.
Arizona’s empowerment scholarship account program gives parents money they can use to send their children to private schools or to teach them at home. The program pays a parent 90 percent of the funding that would have gone to his student’s public school. The money can be spent on a limited number of items such as private school tuition, tutoring, home school curriculum, and college tuition.
The program began in 2011 with just disabled students and has grown to allow an array of students such as ones from failing schools and children of military members.
There are 692 students in the program, almost 80 percent of whom have special needs.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said the bill was designed to give low-income students an opportunity to improve their education and would save the state about $4,000 a student who goes into the program.
Democrats asserted that the mass expansion would break the state’s budget, but Lesko argued that the program has a cap of roughly 5,400 students until 2019.
Lesko’s original bill would have allowed children from all Title I schools into the program, but she said the Arizona Department of Education asked her amend the measure because the department didn’t want to have to verify the incomes of program participants.
That version was pulled three times from the Committee of the Whole in March and February.
Lesko offered a floor amendment Thursday that would have limited the expansion children in zip codes where the average household income is 185 percent or lower of the federal poverty threshold for a family of four with two children under 18.
Lesko said she believed the votes were there to approve HB2291 on Thursday, after several Republicans – including Rep. Frank Pratt, who was a co-sponsor of the measure – said they would vote for the bill. But they didn’t. .
“I was a little surprised because the original bill was even broader,” she said.
More than double the applicants than last year want to enroll in the account program after school-choice groups targeted families in low-income neighborhoods in a massive public awareness campaign. The department of education is currently reviewing 2,474 applications.
~–Includes information from Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services~
Status of Empowerment Scholarship Account bills
SB1236 (empowerment scholarship accounts; expansion) amended to allow certain low-income students into program – Awaiting third read in Senate
SB1237 (empowerment scholarship accounts; revisions) allows students who previously attended a charter school to receive funding levels for charter schools, which is more than traditional public schools – awaiting Committee of the Whole hearing in the House.
HB2291 (empowerment scholarship accounts; expansion) amended to allow certain low-income students into the program – Failed in House