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Senate panel approves major expansion of school choice program

(Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

(Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Saying they’re promoting the rights of parents to choose, a Senate panel agreed today to open the door to all 1.1 million students in Arizona schools to use state dollars to attend private or parochial schools.

The 4-3 vote by the Senate Education Committee followed hours of testimony from individuals who already get what lawmakers call “empowerment scholarship accounts” detailing how they have helped their children. Eligible groups range from children with special needs to those on reservations and those who attend schools rated D or F.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, sponsor of SB1431, said vouchers save taxpayer money. She said schools get an average of $9,529 a year for each student while a typical voucher is in the $5,200 range.

But Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials said that’s misleading.

He said that $9,529 figure includes federal aid to schools as well as locally raised dollars for bonds and overrides. Essigs said the actual amount paid out of the state treasury to in state aid to schools is an average of $1,100 less per student than what the state would give a parent to send a child elsewhere; for high schools the difference is $1,200 per child.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said even if SB1431 is approved and all students are eligible for vouchers, there’s no danger of wholesale shifting of funds from public schools. He cited existing law that limits vouchers to no more than one-half percent of all students, a figure that computes out about 5,500.

What Smith did not say, though, is that cap self-destructs in 2019, removing all limits.

Today’s vote came after lawmakers rejected a bid by Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, to add a requirement that any school that accepts vouchers must comply with the same regulations that apply to all public schools. That includes not only requirements on testing and accounting but also the mandate to accept all students, even those with special needs.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, broke ranks with her Republican colleagues in opposing the measure.

Brophy McGee said she supports school choice. But she said there needs to be a level playing field, including “the same level of accountability and transparency.”

And Brophy McGee said she cannot support having tax dollars going to private and parochial schools until the state adequately funds the public schools it is required to maintain.

“We need to resolve the teacher shortage,” she said. “We need to get us somewhere in the middle of the pack of school per-pupil funding.”

Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, said the reason that some children opt for alternatives is “we’re not funding public schools.”

Lesko’s bill is the culmination of a multi-year effort to further expand the concept of “school choice.”

Arizona already has multiple options. Students need not attend their neighborhood school but can go to any other public school anywhere in the state, so long as there’s space to accommodate the pupils.

The state also has an extensive system of charter schools. These are technically public schools which can be run by nonprofit or for-profit corporations.

While they are exempt from some state regulations, they cannot turn away students they do not want. They also cannot charge tuition beyond the state aid they get.

In 2011, lawmakers approved a program to allow students who cannot get their special needs met at public schools to get a voucher to pay tuition and fees at private schools.

But proponents never made secret their goal of universal vouchers. And since that time, the law has been expanded to foster care children, children in military families, students residing on reservations and those in D- and F-rated schools or school districts.

Until now, however, Lesko has been unable to line up the vote for an all-comers plan, with a key objection being the lack of accountability.

Hoping to address that, SB1431 requires students in grades 3 through 12 who use vouchers to take a nationally recognized achievement test, advanced placement exam or any college admissions test that assesses reading and math.

But unlike public schools, the results would not be made public and instead given only to parents. Lesko said that’s sufficient.

“After all, it is the parents that decide what is the best education for their child,” she said. “And they are the ones that will be able to make sure that, whatever choice they make, it’s living up to their standards.”

“For some kids, the local school doesn’t work or isn’t working,” said Sydney Hay of American Federation for Children, which lobbies for voucher and similar programs nationwide.

Multiple foes cited the high cost of private schools – some charging more than $10,000 a year – and said the vouchers become a subsidy of state dollars to parents whose children already are enrolled in private schools or who would go to private schools anyway. For everyone else, said Sarah Stohr, the concept of school choice is an illusion.

“Single parents like me with no family support in this community have little true choice when it comes to choosing between my job and shuttling my child around town to a school that’s farther from my home,” she testified.

Stohr told lawmakers that, if they really care about children, they would “finally choose to fully and adequately fund our public schools so that no parent feels like their neighborhood school isn’t an excellent choice for them.”

Tory Roberg of the Secular Coalition for Arizona said her objections relate to the idea of using tax dollars to help children go to parochial schools, saying it amounts to using public funds “for the purpose of religious indoctrination.”

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