Arizona Senate panel OKs school vouchers for all

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: Karen Roach via 123RF) (Source: Karen Roach via 123RF)

An Arizona Senate panel dominated by Republicans advanced legislation Thursday that would expand the state's private-school voucher program to all 1.1 million public school students in the state by 2020.

The 4-3 vote by the Senate's Education Committee marks the latest in a yearslong effort by GOP lawmakers who back school choice to expand what started as a small program for disabled students. One Republican, Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, joined the two Democrats on the panel in opposition.

The bill now heads to the full Senate. Identical legislation has been introduced in the House, meaning it could quickly head to Gov. Doug Ducey's desk if approved by both chambers.

[RELATED: Ducey praises school choice advocates as voucher bill awaits]

Under the "Empowerment Scholarship Account" program, parents get most of the state tax dollars their local public school would receive and can spend it on private or religious schools, home schooling or tutoring. Opponents argue the program siphons money from public schools attended by 85 percent of Arizona children, that private schools don't have to enroll students they believe are more costly or difficult to teach and that the program lacks accountability.

Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko, of Peoria, sponsored the proposal and pushed a similar expansion last year that stalled after some Republican lawmakers became concerned that it would imperil a school funding proposition backed by Gov. Ducey. Proposition 123 barely passed and will increase withdrawals from the state land trust to boost school funding as required to settle a court case brought by school districts.

Lesko argued that her proposal will actually save taxpayer money because public schools get state, federal and local funding of more than $9,500 a year, while the average voucher is $5,200 a year.

"They give parents another choice on where they can send their child to get the best education and also save taxpayers money, about $4,300 per year, per student," Lesko said.

Chris Kotterman, with the Arizona School Boards Association questioned Lesko's math, saying the only money that actually moves with a student leaving a public school is state general fund dollars, and that the burden on the general fund actually increases with vouchers.

Chuck Essigs, with the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, put that figure at $1,100 for each elementary student who leaves a public school for a voucher, and $1,200 more for a high school student.

Democratic Sen. Catherine Miranda, of Phoenix, sparred with Lesko, noting that low school funding was a main reason for parents looking for other school choices.

"So we need to fix our public schools so they won't leave," she said. "This bill jeopardizes my public schools. We cannot pass this bill off the back of public school kids."

Brophy McGee said she supported the voucher program, but she could not support the massive proposal now being debated. She said that low school funding, a shortage of teachers, and lack of transparency and accountability made that impossible.

"If we raise the per-public funding for every choice we can go back and have this conversation again, and then it will be meaningful," she said.

Since the initial program was adopted in 2011, it has expanded to cover about a third of all students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Indian reservations or are foster children or children of military members.

Parents in support and opposed to the voucher program packed the meeting.

Lesko and other backers say the program is capped about 5,500 students, but that cap expires after 2019.

Parent Danielle Salomon said the program has helped her autistic son go to a private school that met his needs. She said he went to four public schools before getting a voucher.

"Because of ESA our son is finally in an environment where he can be safe and understood and he can focus instead on his education rather than just surviving," Salomon told the panel. "I believe all parents of special needs children deserve the option to place their child in the right education environment to support those special needs."

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