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Updated Mar 20, 2014 - 5:01 pm

Arizona bill would boost public money for private school

PHOENIX — A last-minute amendment to a bill that aims to expand the
state’s school-voucher program would also increase the amount in public funds a
student could receive to attend private school.

An Arizona Senate committee on Thursday approved the amendment to House Bill
2139, which expands Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts eligibility 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 an amendment would also allocate more money to all students enrolled in the
program. Students currently receive 90 percent of the state’s basic per-student
funding for public schools to use for private school tuition, home-schooling and
certain other expenses like tutoring.

The amended bill would grant an additional $1,684 to $1,963 each for students
enrolled 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
for those who attend public schools.

The increase could amount to about $900,000 annually.

Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, which is
behind the bill, said the public funds that students currently get sometimes
don’t cut it.

“When you have a child coming from a failing school, they are likely going to
be behind. It is likely that they may not be at grade-level reading or
grade-level at math. We need to at least give them, in their account, something
that would take care of their main educational choices,” Butcher said.

But opponents of the program and of the expansion say it unfairly takes money
away from already-struggling public schools.

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said the bill does not give public schools
equal footing in terms of funding. She also echoed what many education advocates
say is a lack of accountability that takes place when public funds go to private

“We want to make sure our public schools are top notch, and that’s our fiscal
responsibility here,” Landrum Taylor said.

The bill is one of several that try to boost the relatively new school-voucher

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 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 up the program to
those from schools that have large low-income populations and qualify for extra
federal aid eligible for the vouchers. That bill has been delayed in the House
for several weeks.

Thursday’s amendment was approved along party lines with a 5-3 vote, although
Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, said he was concerned that the increase was
going too far. Still, he voted in favor of the bill.


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