A House panel agreed Monday to allow hundreds of thousands of children to attend private and parochial schools at public expense, a vote one legislator said is part of a radical agenda to destroy public schools.

HB 2291 would expand an existing voucher-like system to include any student who is eligible for federal free or reduced-price lunch programs. That is as high as $36,131 for a family of three, $43,568 for a family of four and $51,005 for a family of five.

But that's just the beginning.

The legislation approved by the House Ways and Means Committee would annually boost that eligibility figure by 15 percent, and that annual increase would occur forever.

Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said he figures the legislation would immediately make 600,000 of the state's more than one million children eligible to essentially have the state set up an account of tax dollars for them to use for tuition, fees and other costs of education outside the public school system. That, he said, translates out to $3.6 billion of public dollars “coming out of our public education system” for what proponents have called “empowerment scholarship accounts.”

Given the requirement for an annual adjustment, the eligibility would continue to increase annually.

“It is extremely destructive to our public education system,” he said. “In fact, it continues along the road that certain extremist elements in this state have perpetrated on us to take away our empowerment from families and children by defunding public education even further, resulting in larger classroom sizes and less curriculum to choose from and a degradation of our traditional public school system.”

That charge brought an angry reaction from Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who crafted the measure. Lesko said her own children attend public schools.

She did not dispute that money spent to send children to private and parochial schools would mean less for the public schools.

“I certainly hope you don't think you're advocating that we should pay the public school when they don't have a child there,” she said. “They get paid per child.”

The legislation is the latest effort to expand what started out as a small program in 2011 to help parents of children with disabilities. It provides the equivalent of 90 percent of what the state would pay to send that same child to a public school. The Department of Education figures the average non-disabled student gets $5,000 a year; the figure is $13,500 for a student with disabilities. Since that time, legislators have extended that to any child in a public school rated “D” or “F” by the state Board of Education. State officials estimate about 200,000 youngsters already are eligible.

Lesko's measure takes that a step farther by using income as the main criteria; even parents whose income does not meet the criteria could benefit if one of them is a police officer, firefighter, emergency medical technician or other emergency responder.

Lesko pointed out the testimony of Anita Belcher who has a child receiving one of these scholarships.

“It wasn't a fit for him,” Belcher said of public schools. She told lawmakers these become an opportunity for other parents to meet the special learning needs of their children.

Wheeler, however, focused not on how the program started but the perennial efforts to expand it.

“There have been elements in this Legislature and in state government that have had their crosshairs on the ultimate destruction of our public education system,” he said. “This is another serious attempt to accomplish that.”

Lesko said she understands disagreeing with the idea.

“But to say that we are trying to destroy public education is totally, totally untrue,” she said. “I would never do that.”

The legislation comes as the legality of the whole plan is in front of the Arizona Supreme Court. The Arizona Education Association, Arizona School Boards Association and others contend the move violates constitutional provisions that forbid state aid to private and parochial schools.

That argument, however, was rebuffed by the state Court of Appeals. The judges there said the fact that the parents decide where to spend the funds makes the program constitutional.

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