Special needs students currently in public schools may have access to state money for private tuition, tutoring or home school curriculum as early as August if the governor signs a bill headed her way.
Lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to SB 1553 that creates "education empowerment accounts." All that it needs is the governor's signature, and the Goldwater Institute's Clint Bolick - who helped author the legislation - believes Jan Brewer will sign it and continue her support for school choice.
Proponents say the legislation is a win-win for parents and the state: Parents will be able to choose the best private school for their children - or use the funds to pay for educational services such as private supplemental online classes, textbooks and more.
The state wins, they say, because those students will be required to leave public district and charter schools and rescind any special needs services that they may have received, which will save the state money.
Opponents say it's just a voucher in disguise.
"Educational empowerment accounts" differ from vouchers, Bolick said, because unlike vouchers, they are not limited to private school tuition.
The legislation outlines various ways the funds can be used, from private tuition and textbooks at a private school to educational therapies from a licensed provider and fees for Advanced Placement tests. Parents will have to sign an agreement to set up an account and remove the child from public schools.
Firms that contract with the state will manage the funds and undergo periodic audits.
Each student who qualifies could receive 90 percent of the funds the state would have used to educate him or her in a public school. That varies because students with special needs are funded differently.
On average, districts and charter schools receive between $5,000 and $6,000 a year for typical students.
The program would now be limited to students who qualify for special education services, such as those designed for children with autism, language delays, visual impairment, emotional impairment or hearing disabilities. They must have spent at least 100 days in a public district or charter school the previous year.
"This is brand new. The idea, I am proud to say, it was born at the Goldwater Institute following the decision striking down school vouchers. So we are the first state to adopt education savings accounts. Other states are already looking at the idea," Bolick said.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court struck down a voucher program created for students with disabilities. Shortly after, lawmakers adopted a new tuition tax credit scholarship program for students with disabilities.
Tuition tax credits in Arizona allow individuals, and some corporations, to give money to school tuition organization that then awards scholarships to private schools for students. The individuals and corporations receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to a preset limit.
Under the new law - should the governor sign it - students could not use both the "education empowerment accounts" and a tuition tax credit scholarship in the same year.
Bolick said he expects legal challenges, but believes the idea will stand up in court.
Joe Thomas, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the idea is bad on a number of fronts.
"A voucher scheme is a voucher scheme no matter how you call it or try to dress it up or which part of the population you say it's reserved for," Thomas said. "It's a foot in the door and this one especially, we just had a court ruling that struck this down - vouchers for special education students."
Thomas said the lawmakers are not listening to what the public wants, which are "good quality public schools," and not "loopholes" to funding.
"The focus needs to be on the whole school. That's where the voters seem to be. We saw that with (Proposition) 100 (the temporary hike in the state sales tax for education) ... They want the kids in public schools to get a quality education. The Legislature could really help us with that."
Thomas also noted that traditional and special education students both benefit when they are taught side-by-side.
"I cannot advocate enough for the incredible job our highly qualified special education teachers do in public schools across the state," Thomas said. "Pulling them out of public schools, they're (special education students) not going to get what they need."
Thomas also expressed concern that, according to the legislation, money left over in the accounts can be used to pay college expenses once a child has graduated from private or home school.