Arizona Senate committee approves bills greatly expanding school voucher program eligibility

Lifestyle and Budget Associated Press

Students unable to enroll in the public or charter school of their choice and all children on Indian reservations would qualify for the state's private school voucher program under a pair of bills approved Thursday by an Arizona Senate committee.

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Senate Bill 1434 by Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, allows anyone turned away from a public school or public charter school that's within 25 miles of their home to get a private school voucher. Lesko said her goal is to give parents more school options.

"We've heard testimony over the years that parents love them because it creates another choice for their children when maybe the other school districts aren't meeting the education needs of their child," Lesko said. "And it also is a win for the state general fund."

Lesko and school choice proponents argue the state saves money on the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts voucher program, noting parents receive 90 percent of the funding that would go to local public schools for use in private schools.

But the superintendent of public instruction decided last year to also award additional money given to charter schools to all those students, meaning regular public school students get more if they take a voucher.

The program began in 2011 and was aimed at children with disabilities, but legislators have expanded it repeatedly. A major expansion was blocked by Democrats and some majority Republicans last year, but two smaller expansions passed.

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State law provides 90 percent of basic state aid to children who leave regular schools, and those who leave charter schools also get 90 percent of the extra money those charters receive.

"You're essentially giving them $2,000 more than they would have ever received in a public school," Jennifer Loredo of Arizona Education Association told the Senate Education Committee. "Plus, it is all on the state general fund."

She said the current program has just over 1,300 students who receive more than $17 million in funding. That is expected to rise to $24 million next school year.

The five Republicans on the committee voted to advance the bill.

"Anytime we can expand school choice and give parents more options I thing that's a great thing," said Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa.

The committee's two Democrats, Tucson Sen David Bradley and Carlyle Begay of Ganado, opposed the measure.

Begay said he had concerns about the overall expansion of the voucher program and worried about accountability.

But he also is sponsoring his own bill that expands the program to all residents of Indian reservations. Senate Bill 1332 is designed to give children on reservations more school choice and is backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social-conservative group that is a powerful lobbying voice at the Capitol.

Begay said children on reservations have limited access to good schools. He expects few will use the program.

"My best guess is to say this will be offered to a handful of students who apply," Begay said.

His bill passed on a 6-1 vote.

The program allows yearly enrollment growth. By 2019, more than 30,000 students could be using the vouchers.