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Lesko proposal could greatly expand school ‘voucher’ funds

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State lawmakers are making a new attempt to provide taxpayer-provided dollars to all of the 1.1 million students in Arizona schools to help their parents pay to instead send them to private and parochial schools.

Rep. Debbie Lesko

Sen. Debbie Lesko

The proposal by Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would dramatically expand what has been a small program now reserved for students with special needs and those in failing schools. Instead, it would create what amounts to a universal “voucher” of state funds that could be used to pay tuition and fees at other schools.

Sydney Hay, lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, which pushes such programs nationwide, said it’s not really a voucher as parents are free to instead use the dollars to purchase services for their children, including specific classes and tutors. But these essentially have to be parents who home-school their youngsters, as the funding is not available to anyone who attends a traditional public or charter school.

And the system is set up so that if parents have state money left over they can bank that, even setting it aside for a child’s college education.

Lesko said this would not lead to a mass exodus of children from public schools. She pointed out existing law caps these vouchers at 0.5 percent of all students, a figure that comes out to about 5,500 youngsters.

But that cap self-destructs in 2020 — about the same time as Lesko’s four-year phase-in of vouchers for all takes effect. And Lesko was noncommittal about supporting a new cap at that time.

Her legislation is the latest effort to expand what started out as a small program in 2011 to help parents of children with disabilities. It provides the equivalent of 90 percent of what would be state aid to send a similar child to a public school.

The Department of Education puts the average at $13,145. That, however, includes a broad range from those in the $3,000 range for basic students to $30,000 for those with special needs.

Since that time, lawmakers have extended the program to any child in a public school rated “D” or “F” by the state Board of Education.

A similar measure faltered last year amid some bipartisan opposition.

But one factor is that Gov. Doug Ducey was pushing voters to approve Proposition 123 to use money from a special school trust account to settle a lawsuit over inadequate funding for public schools. And the governor made it clear he did not want any bill to reach his desk that would appear to take the focus away from adequate funding for public schools.

This year, however, could be different.

Ducey has pronounced himself a strong supporter of “school choice.” In fact, the governor is scheduled to appear Thursday at a “School Choice Week” celebration at the Capitol.

Lesko has also added a sweetener of sorts to this year’s version: Schools will be required to test students who are attending with vouchers and report the results to the parents. But Lesko said she does not believe it is necessary for private and parochial schools to report the test results to the public even though the taxpayers are the ones funding the education.

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said none of that makes the idea any more acceptable.

“The private schools are a parent’s choice and they’re a legitimate choice,” he said.

“But the state has an obligation to fully and adequately fund its primary mission which is the free public schooling of all the students,” Kotterman said. “And we’re not doing that right now,” he said, with teachers “leaving in droves” and buildings and buses in disrepair.

What all that means, Kotterman said, is the state should not be diverting dollars away from public schools.

Lesko said that’s not the case with those vouchers equal to 90 percent of state aid. She pegged the average voucher at $5,200 for students without special needs.

Using that figure, Lesko said that’s still cheaper than the more than $9,529 it costs to educate the average public school student.

But Kotterman said that figure is misleading because it also includes local and federal funds as well as bonds and overrides.

More to the point, he said all schools depend to some degree or another on locally raised revenues. And that means many schools get less than that full state aid formula.

Put in its most extreme example, he said, the state provides no student aid for Cave Creek schools since that district raises more than enough from local revenues. But if a student moves from a Cave Creek school to a private or parochial school, the state is now on the hook for voucher money it never was obligated to pay before in state aid.

There is the parallel question of whether there is any long-term saving to the state.

Lesko said her legislation qualifies only those who are “switchers,” meaning they came from a public school. But she acknowledged that can allow a family who already intended to send a child to a private school can qualify for a voucher simply by sending the child to a public school kindergarten for one year.

The bottom line, said Lesko, is choice.

“This is another option for students and parents,” she said. And Lesko said this is an increasing national trend, noting the nomination by President Trump of Betsy DeVos, a long-time proponent of vouchers.

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