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Arizona House fails to expand school vouchers

PHOENIX — A major expansion for Arizona’s school-voucher program suffered
a blow on 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 would have initially allowed as many as
850,000 of the state’s more than 1.1 million public school students to qualify.

The bill that won 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.

The Senate on Wednesday approved a bill identical to House Bill 2291 that will
now move to the House.


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