PHOENIX - A major expansion for Arizona's school-voucher program suffered a blow Thursday in the House of Representatives.
Key Republicans banded with Democrats to vote down House Bill 2291, which would have made another 100,000 to 120,000 low-income students eligible for the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program. The program allows students to use taxpayer money for private school, tutoring and other education needs.
The bill was voted down 31-27, with six key Republicans siding with Democrats, who say the program unfairly takes money from public schools and gives it to private institutions that cannot be held publicly accountable.
"It reminds of a Wild West attitude toward something that is the single most important issue that is before us, and that is the education of our children," said Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson. "This is just one more nail in that coffin to weaken our public education system to the point where it will be destroyed and we will not be able to compete nationally and globally as we want to."
Proponents of the expansion say it gives parents more educational choices, especially if they live in low-income areas and near poor-performing schools.
"It gives low-income children opportunities to improve their education," said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria. She said the program saves the state money because it allocates less money for students in the program than it would if they attended public school.
Lesko, who sponsored the bill, pleaded with fellow Republicans after an hours-long contentious debate to change their vote from "no" to "yes."
It was to no avail.
Opponents said the program does not save money because students in the program actually receive additional funding that is supposed to be reserved for students who leave charter schools for the program. Students in charters are funded at a higher rate than those in traditional public schools.
They also vigorously defended public schools.
"As a teacher and as somebody who prepares teachers I cannot come to grips with the fact that just by the fact your family does not make enough money, you do not have quality academic choices," said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek.
But others said that parents should have the ultimate choice in where they send their kids to school.
"I do believe in the parents across the state of Arizona and their ability to make the best decision for their children and for their children's education that they think is best," said Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler.
The school-voucher program was created in 2011 for children with disabilities. It was expanded last year to include children from schools that have received a poor grade from the state, and to students with active military parents.
Another proposed expansion this year sponsored by Lesko would have initially allowed as many as 850,000 of the state's more than 1.1 million public school students to qualify.
The Senate gave an identical version of the bill initial approval Wednesday and it was expected to come to a vote Thursday. But in a sign it faces problems in the Senate as well, that vote never happened.
A cap allows only an additional 5,400 students to use the vouchers this year, but that cap will grow each year. The cap will have grown to more than 34,000 students by the time it expires in 2020.