Applications for school-voucher program soar

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX (AP) -- An aggressive media campaign and expanded eligibility helped double the number of applicants for the state's school voucher program, which allows students to use public funds for a private education.

The number of applications received by the Arizona Department of Education this year for the 2014-2015 school year is 2,479, compared to last year's 1,100.

That's because legislators expanded the program last year to include children from schools that have received a poor grade from the state, and to those with active military parents. The program was created in 2011 for students with disabilities.

The growth is also due to an aggressive media campaign and door-to-door canvassing, an advocate says.

That campaign, a collaboration between the Goldwater Institute, Alliance for School Choice and other groups, got Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal in trouble after he recorded automated calls advocating for the program that went out to 15,000 Phoenix and Tucson homes in poor-performing school districts.

But the calls weren't very effective, Alliance for School Choice spokeswoman Kim Martinez said.

It was a series of radio ads, along with the door-to-door canvassing, that helped net so many new applicants.

Martinez said the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options partnered with her organization and sent representatives to homes to help parents enroll in the program.

"I do know that was a very powerful way to reach the parents and their children and actually help. It shows there are a lot of parents out there that are searching for education programs for their children and the (empowerment scholarship accounts) program really has the potential to meet that need," Martinez said.

Nearly 700 students are already enrolled in the program.

Legislators this year have proposed several measures to further expand the program. A proposal by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would have expanded eligibility to a majority of Arizona students, but the bill has so far not been heard by the House.

The program has been opposed by many education advocates who say it unfairly takes funding from public schools and gives it to private institutions that cannot be held accountable. However, the Arizona Supreme Court has upheld the program by refusing to overrule a lower court's decision that rejected opponents' arguments that the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program violates state constitutional prohibitions on using public money to support religious or private schools. The courts say it is constitutional because parents decide how to spend the money.