Arizona’s School Voucher Program Supported by State Supreme Court


The Arizona State Supreme Court voted last month that the voucher program are constitutional. Howard Fischer, writing for Capitol Media Services, says that the court would not overturn the court of appeal's decision that the voucher system does not conflict with the state constitution's determination that public funding could not be used to support private or parochial schools. The court made its decision based on the fact that parents make the decision about where the money goes, not state government officials.

But Don Peters, attorney for the education groups that challenged the legality of the program, said it also effectively ratifies last year's legislation expanding eligibility to all students attending schools rated D or F.

On paper that theoretically includes about 200,000 of the 1.1 million youngsters in Arizona public schools.

There is a limit as to the number of vouchers that can be given. The cap is that these scholarship accounts cannot increase over 0.5% each year. That would mean about 5,000 annually. The limitation will be removed in 2020.

The vouchers are similar to a checking account that is given to parents through which they can pay for permissible expenses. The state money in the account, in the amount of $5,400, is increased for special needs students. This amount is equal to 90% of state aid that is set aside for public schools.

Now that the program cannot be labeled unconstitutional, some lawmakers are asking: "Does the voucher program work?" There are politicians who think that private and parochial students should take the same standardized tests as students in public schools. The retort by voucher supporters is that parents themselves are capable of knowing whether or not their children are receiving a good education.

As it now stands, voucher applications have doubled since the beginning of an intense recruitment campaign by the media, door-to-door canvassing and radio advertisements, according to Astrid Galvan, reporting for the Associated Press. Superintendent of Arizona Public Instruction, Jon Huppenthal, broadcast automated messages to families in Phoenix and Tucson areas who were in districts that contained poor-performing schools, in support of the voucher program. The Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, sent members door-to-door to assist families in the application process.

The voucher program in Arizona has been expanded to include students who qualify for free or reduced price school lunches; students whose families are 15% above the threshold for free or reduced price lunches; potentially all students who attend schools with a D or F rating; and, possibly, students in schools that have large low-income populations and qualify for extra federal aid. Ironically, Don Peters, attorney for the education groups that challenged the legality of the program, said that if the state can provide this program for some students, it could provide it for every student. Rep. Debbie Lesko agrees:

Rep. Debbie Lesko, (R-Peoria), actually wants the full House to make the measure even broader than that: Rather than having to figure out which families are eligible, she is proposing to open the door to any student attending a school eligible for federal Title I funding, meaning any school where at least half the students are considered low-income. And that, she said, could ultimately boost eligibility to 800,000.

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