HEAR ME OUT: Are school vouchers OK in Arizona?

PHOENIX - Each Sunday, ABC15.com debuts an Arizona issue - along with two opposing sides on the topic.

Don't worry, you always have the opportunity to make comments at the bottom of the page. Yeah, your opinion matters, too.

This week we're tackling the debate on whether or not school vouchers are OK in Arizona.

We first discussed the topic in the fall, and it's an ongoing issue in Arizona as we begin a new year.

Andrew F. Morrill, President of the Arizona Education Association, says S.B. 1553 violates our state constitution by diverting public funds to private schools.

Jonathan Butcher, Education Director for the Goldwater Institute, says while the teachers union chases more money, a high-quality, customized education is within the reach of families benefiting from Arizona's education savings accounts.

Click "next page" to read the first of two positions, " Education savings accounts are constitutional ".

"Education savings accounts are constitutional": By Jonathan Butcher, Education Director for the Goldwater Institute

Jeff and Rebecca were frustrated. Their daughter, Kasey, was struggling in kindergarten, and while they had routines at home that helped her with basic tasks, Jeff saw their progress slip away as Kasey began spending her days in the classroom. Years earlier, Kasey had been diagnosed with autism, and her local school simply could not meet her needs.

When Kasey's parents learned of Arizona's new Education Savings Account program for students with special needs (created by S.B. 1553), they found it almost too good to be true. Jeff and Rebecca now had access to 90 percent of Kasey's student funding to use on educational services, including instructional therapies and tutoring. "It's been great," says Jeff, adding that it has "opened a lot of doors."

Gov. Jan Brewer signed Arizona's savings account program into law in April 2011, nearly two years after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the state's school voucher program unconstitutional. One of the elements making the savings accounts different – and constitutional – is the sheer range of choice offered. With vouchers, parents could use student funds only for private-school tuition. With the new accounts, parents of students with special needs can fully customize their child's education through traditional education services, such as tutoring, and innovative programs like online learning.

The court said vouchers resulted in unconstitutional direct aid – tuition payments – from the state to private schools. However the court also said, "There may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution."

Education savings accounts put state funds into a private account operated by parents, a distinction that makes all the difference and lets parents create a truly customized education for their children.

This is a revolutionary new way to consider education and a welcome departure from the drone of special interests calling for more money. Arizona education funding has gone in the same direction as federal education spending and that of other states: Straight up. Nationwide, average per pupil funding has more than doubled since 1970, after adjusting for inflation. The Arizona Tax Research Association reports that between 1990 and 2010, Arizona's base funding level increased by 43.3 percent. Even with these increases, approximately 3 out of every 4 Arizona 4 th graders cannot read at grade level, a figure that has changed little since 1992.

While the teachers union chases more money, a high-quality, customized education is within the reach of families benefitting from Arizona's education savings accounts.

Just ask Jeff, Rebecca, and Kasey. As a father, Jeff will tell you what it is like to provide your child with the best education you can find for her.  "She likes to go to school," he says. "It's been a huge success for us."

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

Click "next page" to read the second position, " S.B . 1553 is unconstitutional"

"S.B. 1553 is unconstitutional": By Andrew F. Morrill, President of the Arizona Education Association

Arizona law is clear: No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation.

S.B. 1553 violates our state constitution by diverting public funds to private schools.  Regardless of who makes the decision to use the money for private school tuition, whether it's the state or parents, the law prevents these monies from funding private education.

The Arizona Supreme Court struck down similar voucher legislation in 2009 as being unconstitutional.  Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are just another form of these vouchers trying to bypass the law.

AEA opposes vouchers because our core mission is to provide a quality public education to every child in Arizona, so of course the kids come first. But we need to provide high quality to every child without violating a principle in our constitution that is valid and important to our democracy.

Arizona voters have repeatedly indicated that they do not want public monies going to private and religious education.  In a state rich in both public and private choice, parents overwhelmingly choose public schools.  In April of 2010, the Arizona Policy Initiative released a briefing on a study of school choice, finding that an overwhelming majority of parents choose to keep their students in traditional, neighborhood public schools.

This lawsuit isn't about choice or limiting choices.  Arizona is the leader in school choice in our nation.  Parents have many choices and the majority has chosen public schools.  This is about adequately funding and improving the schools our students are already in.

Since 2009 Arizona has cut over $2 billion in public education funding.  Rather than slashing public school budgets and diverting funds to private schools, Arizona needs to focus on investing in public education.  Parents have chosen public schools as their investment in their children's future.  It's time our state's leaders did the same.

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

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