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Arizona Senate bill aims to expand education opportunities for students

(Flickr/PAL LTER)

PHOENIX — A new bill seeks to expand a program that allows parents to take tax dollars that would otherwise go toward public schools and use them to send their children to private schools.

The Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program was launched in 2011 and was limited for children with special needs. Since then, it has expanded to benefit others, including children in failing schools and children living on tribal lands.

Now, Senate Bill 1431 proposes to make all public-school students eligible for the ESA program.

Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, students in kindergarten, first, sixth and ninth grades would qualify for the program. By the 2020-2021 school year, all students would qualify.

“To me it’s really about improving education,” State Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, the lead sponsor of the bill, told KTAR. “The ESA program is just another option for parents to choose the best education they can for their child.”

The program is currently capped at about 5,500 students. Under the bill, that cap would remain. About 3,400 students are benefiting from the program this school year.

On average, non-special needs students get $5,200 in tax funds to use toward private school tuition or other approved education-related expenses, including tutoring and homeschooling.

Public education advocates worry the bill would take tax dollars away from public schools. Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said tax dollars should not be used to fund private schools.

“We believe we should put our limited tax dollars into our public schools, where the majority of our kids go,” he said, adding that public schools “desperately” need money to reduce class sizes and to give teachers raises.

He also said the estimated $5,200 that students get through the ESA program would not be enough to cover tuition at most private schools in Arizona. The average cost to attend a private elementary school in Arizona is close to $6,000. But for private high schools, the price tag rises to about $18,000.

The bill comes after a state audit report that found more than $102,000 in ESA funds were misspent between August 2015 and January 2016.

Some parents, for example, bought non-educational items with the ESA funds. Those items included a snow globe, a World of Warcraft calendar, a sock monkey, and The Walking Dead board game.

Lesko said she was disturbed by the audit’s findings and pointed out that Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, introduced a bill that would demand more accountability from the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

“I’m working with Senator Smith to make sure that the ESAs are accountable and that money will not be misspent,” Lesko said. “And if there is some fraudulent person out there misspending the funds, they will be caught and penalized.”

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