Deal for massive Arizona school voucher expansion heads to governor's desk

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Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

By a razor-thin margin, state lawmakers Thursday expanded Arizona's school voucher program to make all K-12 students eligible.

Both the state Senate and House narrowly approved a Republican-backed proposal along party line votes, giving Arizona one of broadest voucher programs in the nation.  

While SB 1431 qualifies all 1.1 million students to receive taxpayer money to attend private or parochial schools, an amendment by Sen. Bob Worsley, a Republican from Mesa, caps the growth at nearly 30,000 students after 2022.

Worsley had been a key GOP holdout.

His changes also reduced the amount of money the expansion would have cost the state.

One analysis by the non-partisan Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated the original proposal would have cost $24 million a year.

After Worsley's changes, the JLBC now calculates SB 1431 will save Arizona taxpayers about $3.4 million.

The bill heads to Gov. Doug Ducey, who is expected to sign it into law.

Earlier in the day, Ducey appeared to be cheering for SB 1431 from the sidelines, tweeting, "Arizona has been the nation's leader in educational & parental choice for two decades. Let's keep it going, & help all Arizona kids succeed!"

Supporters of the bill say voucher programs give parents more educational options for their children.

Opponents say it's an attack on public schools because it drains money away from public schools.

The state started the ESA program in 2011 on a limited basis but has expanded ever since.

Currently, the Arizona Department of education says there are roughly 3,100 students enrolled, accepting about $46 million in disbursements.

How the program works: 90 to 100 percent of the money that would have gone to a student's prior school district or charter school is deposited into an ESA account.

Parents or guardians can then use the money for private school tuition or other educational needs.

There have been problems.

An auditor general report found more than $100,000 was misspent over a six month period.

The law is moving through at a time when there's considerable momentum behind school choice on a national level, punctuated by the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as President Donald Trump's Education Secretary. The billionaire is a vocal supporter of school choice and voucher programs, putting the nation's top education official firmly behind the Arizona proposal.

Nevada has a similar plan applying to all students, but its funding mechanism was recently struck down by the state Supreme Court.

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