Expanded Voucher Program Moves Ahead in Arizona

An expanded voucher system that will give parents government money to take kids out of failing public schools is moving ahead in Arizona this week. The Arizona Daily Star reports that parents have until Wednesday to submit applications for the empowerment scholarship accounts that will award debit cards with $3,500 credit which is equal to 90% of the state’s per-student funding.

The funds are usable to either pay tuition at an alternative private or parochial school or towards homeschooling expenses and even tutoring – all with a caveat that the child will not be part of the state’s public school system. The voucher program is the expanded version of the one that’s been in effect in Arizona since 2011 that only covered students with disabilities.

The program was expanded to cover all schools rated D or F last year, which is more than 10% of all the schools in the state.

State education officials estimate there are about 65,000 students in traditional public schools and another 12,000 in charter schools that are graded D. No schools are currently rated F. Another 10,000 children of active-duty military are also now eligible.

And each student getting one of these scholarships eventually means less state funding for the school from which he or she came.

“It gives another option to those parents to take their children out of a D and F school,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale. “Obviously, the school is not doing a very good job of teaching them.”

Lesko dismissed concerns about the voucher program impoverishing public schools, saying that the main concern was the quality of education and not the specifics of how it’s delivered. Understandably, the president of the state’s teachers union – the Arizona Education Association – isn’t quite as sanguine.

Andrew Morrill says that lawmakers are not considering how well schools throughout the state are positioned to absorb student losses that are not concentrated but spread out among several schools.

“You don’t get rid of a teacher,” he said. “Those are spread throughout the entire population. You don’t reduce the lighting in a building by 20 students’ worth.”

TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone said he doesn’t know what kind of impact the voucher program might have, but he doesn’t expect a mass exodus of students from the district.

“If parents really want to leave for a private school, this will help offset the cost, but I don’t believe it will be the impetus,” Pedicone said.

The more pressing concern for the Tucson Unified School District, which has consistently lost more than 1,000 students a year for several years, is working to reduce the number of D-rated schools – currently there are 18 – and providing a quality education in spite of ongoing state budget cuts, Pedicone said.