PHOENIX - A decision by the state's highest court and an obscure amendment to an education bill intensified a debate in the Arizona Legislature this week over a program that gives students taxpayer money to attend private schools.
The Arizona Supreme Court on Friday kept the voucher program intact by declining to review a prior court decision upholding the program. Supporters of the law called it an important legal victory in their fight to expand the program.
Republican lawmakers have proposed several bills to expand the program that could allow a majority of students to receive vouchers to attend private schools. Democrats say the proposals are an attempt to dismantle public education. It has been one of the most heated issues in the 2014 Legislature.
Under the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, students receive vouchers for 90 percent of the state's basic per-student funding for public schools. Parents can use the money to help pay for private school tuition, home-schooling and certain other expenses like tutoring.
But one Democratic state senator says an amendment to a voucher bill that would allow the state Department of Education to give extra funding to all students in the program is just a way to get the department "off the hook" for violating state law.
A Senate committee on Thursday approved an amendment to House Bill 2139, which expands eligibility for the program to siblings of students who are current or past recipients and to those who have not previously attended public school. Current rules require students to attend public school before being eligible.
But the amendment would also allocate more money to all students enrolled in the program, which is currently about $3,000 per student.
The amended bill would grant an additional $1,684 to $1,963 each for students in the program, depending on their grade level. The extra money is based on what students who attend charter schools receive, which is higher than the public school rate.
Chris Kotterman, deputy director of government relations for the agency, said the education department already provides the extra funding to the students in the voucher program.
That prompted criticism from Sen. Anna Tovar, a leading Democratic senator from Tolleson, who said the amendment was designed as cover for the agency for "misappropriating" about $900,000 a year.
"This is, again, taxpayer money that is going unaccounted for. This is all taxpayer money and we should know what the money is going toward," said Tovar, who opposes the voucher program.
Kotterman says the department is neutral on whether the statute does or does not allow for all students to receive the extra money. He said the initial intent of a program expansion last year was for the extra funding to apply to all students, but that a number of amendments left the language of the bill muddled.
"We made a decision to not engage in the ensuing battle. All we want as a department is a clear and unambiguous statute," he said.
Proponents of extra funding on Thursday implied that students don't already get the money, arguing that what students currently get does not suffice.
The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program began in 2011 and was aimed at children with disabilities. Legislators expanded the program last year to include children from public schools that have received a poor grade from the state and to those with active military parents.
A bill by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts eligibility to most students in Arizona by opening it up to students from schools that have large low-income populations and qualify for extra federal aid. That bill has been delayed in the House for several weeks.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Supreme Court handed a victory to supporters of the program.
The court will not overturn an October Court of Appeals decision that rejected opponents' arguments that the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program violates state constitutional prohibitions on using public money to support religious or private schools. The courts say it is constitutional because parents decide how to spend the money.