The Arizona Senate on Monday approved the expansion of a school voucher program that will allow every public school student to use state cash to attend a private school by 2020.
Senate Bill 1279 is the latest in a series of vouchers expansions that began after the Republican-controlled Legislature created the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011.
The expansion approved on a 17-13 vote Monday adds all public students over three years while maintaining existing enrollment caps. But that cap goes away in 2020, allowing all 1.1 million public school students to get a voucher. All but one Republican supported the bill and all Democrats were opposed.
Backers say limits on the current Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program make it too hard to get a voucher. Opponents say expansion would rob the public school system of funds and questioned how the state could avoid paying tuition for private school students.
Republican backers of the legislation said it expands school choice while keeping in place the current cap.
"It's a huge step forward for school choice for our parents and students throughout this state," said Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria. She noted that a cap of about 5,000 students remains in place and opponent's concerns that it would hurt public schools was wrong because the voucher programs pay less that public schools receive in government funding.
"Not only are we advancing school choice so that children and parents can take whatever's best for them, but we're also saving taxpayer money," Lesko said. "My vote is yes to school choice."
Democrats pushed back, noting that the cap expires after 2019 and noting that the program that began to service just disabled children has expanded repeatedly since then.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, warned fellow senators that they are putting a May 17 special election on school funding at risk.
"This will leave the kids in the public school system with a further decaying classroom, decaying infrastructure, lack of teachers, lack of books, and we end up with the ghettoization of public education," said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said school choice proponents were abandoning the vast majority of parents who choose public schools.
"School choice sounds like a great thing, school choice on paper sounds great," Quezada said. "The reality is that school choice is not what it seems ... the reality is that the overwhelming majority of parents are choosing their public school."
The House is considering identical legislation, so the measure could quickly go to Gov. Doug Ducey if the House acts.© 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.