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Schools chief increases voucher payments, lawsuit likely

Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal decided today that all students in a program that provides taxpayer dollars for private education will be funded at higher levels than traditional public school kids.

Huppenthal’s decision will spur a lawsuit from the public school establishment, which already threatened litigation over this year’s SB1237. That measure proposed to fund students in the controversial scholarship program at the level of charter school students, which is at least $1,500 more than what traditional public school students get.

Jennifer Loredo, a lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association, said the teacher’s union and the Arizona School Boards Association, which teamed up to win a lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s refusal to fund inflationary adjustments last year, have already spoken to their lawyers about Huppenthal’s conclusion.

“Here’s one more attorney’s fee the state of Arizona is going to have to pay to the AEA,” Loredo said, predicting victory in the lawsuit.

ASBA and AEA interpret the current statute to mean only students who have entered the program directly from a charter school would get the charter school amount.

But in a news release today, Huppenthal said he decided “that two students on the same program should be treated equally and with uniformity, upholding Arizona’s equal protection philosophy.”

His decision means K-8 students in the empowerment scholarship account program will receive $1,515.77 more than their traditional public-school peers, and high school students will get $1,766.61 more than their counterparts. The funding is set to begin in the 2014-15 school year.

The program, the first of its kind in the country, pays parents 90 percent of the funding that would have gone to their students’ public school. The money can be spent on a host of things, including private school tuition, tutoring and home school curriculum. It can also be saved for college.

SB1237, which was pushed by the Education Department, aimed to fix the statute’s murky language on ESA funding, but the House stripped away language that would have funded all students in the program at the higher level.

The program currently has 684 students, mostly with special needs. The state has disbursed nearly $13 million to those students since the program’s inception two years ago.

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