School voucher expansion set for legislative votes

PHOENIX - One chamber of the Arizona Legislature has given a nod to a major expansion of the state's school voucher program.

The Senate on Wednesday gave initial approval to Senate Bill 1236, which has been amended to make eligible another 100,000 to 120,000 low-income students for the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The program allows students to use taxpayer money for a private education, tutoring and other education needs.

The program and its many expansions have had strong Republican support, while Democrats and education advocates oppose it.

"Taxpayers are paying for this program and they deserve to know if the bar is moving. Accountability is clearly lacking," said Sen. Anna Tovar, D-Phoenix.

"There is no threat to the public neighborhood school with any of these bills. It's just one more option for at-risk children," said Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix. Yee sponsored the amendment expanding the program.

The House of Representatives will take up an identical measure, House Bill 2291, on Thursday. Final votes are expected this week.

The 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.

This year's proposed expansion initially allowed as many as 850,000 of the state's more than 1.1 million public school students to qualify.

The bill that got initial approval in Senate would reduce that significantly. A cap allows only an additional 5,400 students to use the vouchers this year, but that cap will grow each year. By 2019, the cap will have grown to more than 34,000 students.

Opponents say the program takes taxpayer money from public schools and gives it to private institutions that cannot be held publicly accountable.

But Lesko said Wednesday the cap on growth will keep program enrollment in public schools at about the same levels while giving parents added school choice.

"I understand that traditional public schools don't want competition - after all when charter schools (laws) went through, the traditional public schools fought them tooth and nail," Lesko said. "And as you know charter schools are very popular in Arizona. This is the same type of thing. It just gives another alternative to parents for their children."

Lesko's effort is opposed by minority Democrats, who worry Republicans are likely to eliminate the cap as soon as next year.

But it also has opposition from at least some Republicans, including Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek.

"This program was initially marketed as a program to meet specific needs that were not being met in the classroom or in our schools today,' Carter said. "So for example, children that have severe and profound disabilities would be able to access these ESA accounts. Also it was marketed as a program that would save money, and depending on how the amendment gets drafted it actually will cost more money that what was initially promised.

"So because of both of those ... I'm a no," Carter said

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