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Updated Apr 21, 2014 - 5:30 pm

Arizona House to take up 2 school voucher bills

PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Education says it was mistaken when it
informed the public and reporters last month that all students in the state’s
school voucher program are currently receiving extra funding that is meant for
students from charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Arizona House of Representatives is slated to debate a bill that
would allow the department to do just that.

The House on Monday morning delayed a debate on Senate Bill 1237, which would
allow the education department to give all students in the Arizona Empowerment
Scholarship Accounts program an extra $1,684 to $1,963 that is meant for
students who leave charter schools to join the program. Students in charters get
more funding than those in traditional public schools.

The voucher program has been a contentious topic this legislative session, with
several Republican bills that aim to expand the program. One bill approved in
both chambers.

The House last week voted down a different bill that would have vastly expanded
program eligibility to low-income students. House Bill 2291 would have added an
additional 100,000 to 120,000 students who are eligible to participate, although
the program has a cap in place that would only allow 5,400 new students into the
program this year. That cap will grow in coming years. But the House voted down
the bill with a 31-27 vote, with six key Republicans siding with Democrats.

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. It allows students to
use public funds for a private education, tutoring and other educational needs.

Senate Bill 1237, if approved, would legally allow the Department of Education
to give all students in the program extra funding. There are currently 700
students enrolled, and an additional 2,479 have already applied to enroll in the
upcoming school year. The bill also would allow parents of special needs
children enrolled in the program to get verification from an independent
contractor that would allow them to receive extra funding, instead of going
through the school district the child previously attended.

Proponents of the expansions say the program gives parents more choices to best
fit their child’s educational needs. Opponents say it unfairly takes funding
away from public schools while giving it to private institutions that cannot be
held publicly accountable.

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