Arizona Voucher Program Strong, Continues To Grow

Now that court challenges to the initial program have been rejected, proponents of a voucher-like program in Arizona are preparing to make them available to more than 400,000 students statewide.

To expand existing eligibility requirements for what are known as Education Savings Accounts for all children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute is working with Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria to expand the program. In theory, the taxpayer-funded program that can pay for things like tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, originally sold to the public as help for students with special needs or stuck in poor schools, would become an option for all.

At the Arizona Education Association, which fought unsuccessfully to block the program — first at the Capitol and then in the courts — the plan has provoked alarm. AEA President Andrew Morrill believes that all this would do is drain needed dollars from a public school system which he said has seen its funding slashed by a cumulative $1.6 billion since the recession began.

The plan, taken to its possible limits, could result in a drain of students, and the dollars that follow them, from public schools, as Butcher conceded. But according to him, public schools becoming more efficient and even offering options like individual classes for home-schooled students on a tuition basis would be the more likely outcome.

Butcher said that a parent getting to make the ultimate choices for their youngsters is the goal, but Morrill said that this is more designed to benefit parents who would send their children to private and parochial schools anyway. And Butcher acknowledged that these parents would have access to the funds.

"On an individual basis, anybody would be supportive of a family's right to choose," Morrill said. "But we have to balance that with an underfunded system that is making it difficult to educate over a million students."

As reported by Howard Fischer of The Arizona Daily Sun, there are no surprises in the new push. By first getting a program in 2011 for students with special needs to test the legal waters, proponents of a statewide plan have been planting the seeds for years. In a decision upheld by the Court of Appeals, a trial judge subsequently ruled the system does not violate constitutional bans on aid to private and parochial schools, so lawmakers subsequently expanded it to all students attending schools rated D or F despite the case still to go to the Arizona Supreme Court.

240,000 youngsters are now eligible according to Butcher estimates. However, Lesko, who pushed through the prior expansions, has said from the start that once the legal hurdles were overcome she would want to expand the program statewide.

The program is unnecessary, even for students in low-rated schools, according to Morrill. He said that with an extensive network of state-funded nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, Arizona youngsters already have more choices than in most other states. There also is an open enrollment system at public schools, allowing students to attend any school that has space. Additionally, to Morrill, the program is little more than a thinly disguised effort to funnel more state dollars into private and parochial schools, siphoning away dollars from the public school system.

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