Arizona Bill Sponsor Expands School Choice Provisions

The sponsor of a bill concerning school vouchers in Arizona has expanded the proposed legislation by adding an amendment that will allow most of Arizona’s students to enroll.

Astrid Galvan of the Associated Press reports that the amendment sponsored by Republican Debbie Lesko would allow children from lower income families, students who attend schools that qualify for extra federal assistance, children who receive reduced price or free lunches and those who are 15% above the school lunch program income category to apply for vouchers.

The Center for Arizona Policy, headed by lobbyist Cathi Herrod and creators of the recent Senate Bill 1062, have joined with the Goldwater Institute to back the school voucher legislation.

The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program began in 2011 and was aimed at children with disabilities. The program allows students to receive vouchers for 90 percent of the state’s basic per-student funding for public schools. Parents can use the money to help pay for private school tuition and certain other expenses.

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.

Several states are having similar disagreements concerning school vouchers. North Carolina’s voucher program has been stopped pending the results of two cases challenging the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship Program funded with state dollars.  The number of students involved in the North Carolina program is significantly smaller than the numbers being suggested in Arizona.

In Ft. Wayne, Indiana, the students applying for vouchers were already in parochial schools, making the voucher program in essence a state subsidy for religious schools rather than offering some sort of better educational alternative for pupils in struggling public schools. 

Rick Cohen, in the Nonprofit Quarterly, commented on the Arizona State Commissioner of Education John Huppenthal:

It must be pretty good to be a private school, even if nonprofit, in Arizona, when the state commissioner of education is plumping for students to leave public schools and opt for vouchers to private schools. Perhaps John Huppenthal forgot his job title. He is Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction (emphasis ours), but that didn’t stop him from recording a robocall for the Alliance for School Choice encouraging parents to take advantage of vouchers that would pay for their kids’ education costs outside of public schools.

Among the other reasons cited by some school systems and parents for opposing school voucher programs are the following:

Vouchers have to be paid by the state.  Money used to pay for vouchers should go toward the improvement of existing public schools.

Vouchers promote an unfair advantage to private and non-profit schools.  Many of the expenses that burden public schools are not required at nonprofits, such as, bussing, special ed. options, free lunch and breakfast offerings.

There is no guarantee that a “private school” is innately better than a public school.  There are public schools which regularly score higher than their private school counterparts on standardized testing and other rating tools.

The use of educational vouchers is extremely controversial and critics say that the answer to the question of whether there is value in the rewarding of vouchers to students, as far as  improved education is concerned, is still not clear.