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Governor signs massive school voucher expansion into law

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Gov. Doug Ducey late Thursday signed legislation to make all public school students in Arizona eligible to get state money to attend private and parochial schools.

But the plan, approved by the House and Senate hours earlier with no Democrat support and several Republicans in opposition, will not mean every child would be able to get one of these vouchers. The bill has a limit, though that could be removed by lawmakers in the future.

On paper the legislation does make every one of the 1.1 million students in Arizona public schools eligible for vouchers. They would be worth about $4,400 a year for most students.

But to get the votes, supporters had to agree to a cap of about 30,000 vouchers by 2021, a cap that will remain in place unless and until lawmakers decide otherwise.

That is a far cry from the original bill introduced by Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, the author of the current limited voucher program. She wanted to make universal vouchers available as soon as 2019.

That idea faltered as not just Democrats but some Republicans objected to questions ranging from philosophical issues of state aid to private schools to the fact that her legislation actually would have increased the cost to the state by $25 million a year by 2021.

It was Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who crafted the final plan that got not just his vote but the bare minimum 16 senators and 31 representatives needed for final approval.

Part of that is that his plan actually will reduce the tax burden by $3.4 million by 2021 depending on how many students actually leave public schools. But the cap also was a selling point.

That provided little comfort to Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. He pointed out it would take only a simple majority of a future legislature to remove that cap and create universal vouchers, potentially drawing off hundreds of thousands of children from public schools. Worsley conceded the point.

“I think it’s the best deal we can get,” he said. But Worsley also said the potential for doing away with the cap is not necessarily a bad thing, saying the next six years will be an “experiment” which will show whether vouchers actually result in better education.

Vouchers were first approved in 2011 to help parents whose children with special needs could not get the services they need in public schools.

Foes sued, charging they violate a state constitutional provision barring public dollars from being used for religious worship or instruction.

But the state Court of Appeals said the money goes to the parents who decide how to spend the funds, making who ultimately gets the dollars irrelevant. And the judges said the vouchers do not result in the state encouraging the preference of one religion over another, or religion over atheism.

Since that time, proponents have repeatedly added to the list of who is eligible. It now includes everything from children of people in the military on active duty and foster children to all children in failing schools and those living on Indian reservations.

And supporters have made it clear from the beginning the ultimate goal always has been universal vouchers, which was precisely where Lesko was headed.

Worsley insisted he’s neither a supporter or foes of vouchers, formally called “empowerment scholarship accounts,” describing himself has a “pragmatic arbitrator” between supporters and foes.

Farley sniffed at that contention, saying his proffered “compromise” does not acknowledge there are many lawmakers who believe public dollars should not be used to send any children at all to private and parochial schools.

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs said it was no compromise at all.

“This is lipstick on a pig,” Hobbs said.

Worsley had another sales point for his amendment beyond the at least temporary cap: Cash.

The current basic voucher is for about $5,600 a year. His new formula reduces that for most students who switch from public schools to just $4,400.

What that means, he said, is that what would have cost the state $25 million in 2021 under the old formula now will save $3.4 million. Worsley said that’s nothing to be sneezed at, pointing out that $28.4 million swing is twice as much as Ducey, who lobbied in support of this plan, put into this year’s budget for teacher raises.

But much of the fight was over who benefits.

There is some evidence that many of the 3,800 students who now get vouchers have moved from public schools in affluent neighborhoods. That leads to charges that vouchers help don’t help the poor but defray what parents pay to have their youngsters attend private schools where tuition can top $15,000 a year.

“They’re just having the taxpayers of Arizona subsidize that tuition,” said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix.

Worsley did not dispute that.

But he said the cost to taxpayers under his plan would be no more than if the student stayed in public schools. And Worsley said there’s something else.

“There are some on the ESA side that feel that, regardless of your income, you pay taxes, and getting an equivalent amount of those taxes to apply to your choice for education is not immoral,” he said.

That reduction in the amount of the voucher was enough to gain the support of Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott. Fann said while she believes in parental choice, she could not support the higher cost of vouchers to the state under Lesko’s original measure.

“I did not feel it was appropriate to ding the public schools,” she said. The new version, she said, is essentially revenue neutral.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said it’s wrong to see vouchers as a loss to public schools. He said if a child moves to a private school that’s one less child for the public school to educate, meaning its costs should decrease.

But Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said she cannot support vouchers at this point.

“We need to properly fund our public schools before we pull money away from them into other programs,” she said.

Rep. Todd Clodfelter, R-Tucson, said his “no” vote is even more basic. He said residents of his district do not support the bill.

The measure has a loophole of sorts: That requirement to switch from a public school does not apply to kindergartners even if parents always intended to put that child into a parochial or private school. That child then would have his or her entire 13-year private education paid for with public dollars.

Lesko said she sees the issue in simpler terms.

“That’s one of the good things about parental choice: not forcing students to stay in failing schools,” she said.

Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, said that ignores the fact that private schools, unlike their public counterparts, can pick and choose who to take — and who to reject. But the Republican majority rejected his amendment to require private schools that want to be paid with voucher dollars to accept all students.

“We’re dividing up the haves and have-nots in Arizona,” said Farley.

Democrats also complained the legislation lacks “means testing” to focus the dollars on students from low-income homes.

Worsley said he could not get supporters to go along with that. But he said there is a provision which says students from homes where income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level — about $50,440 a year for a family of three — would get vouchers that are worth 10 percent more.

He also said his amendment also adds something that does not exist now: a form of accountability. Schools that accept at least 50 students who are using vouchers will have to administer the same kind of achievement tests now required of students in traditional public and charter schools and make the results public.

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