A new law signed this week by Gov. Jan Brewer could give an estimated 100,000 children in Arizona schools a check from the state to go to a private or parochial school instead.
The measure vastly expands an existing voucher program -- dubbed "empowerment accounts'' -- now meant to give additional education opportunities for students with special needs. Now in its first year, that program had about 150 participants at a cost of $1.5 million.
Under the new law, any student whose school is rated a D or worse on academic achievement now also will qualify for a voucher, good for 90 percent of the basic aid the state gives to public schools for each student. At last count, 183 of the 1,502 schools that had been given letter grades were rated a D; no school is yet rated F.
State education officials think there are at least 90,000 students in those failing schools. On top of that, the new law also says children of active duty military also can get these vouchers, which brings the number to the 105,000 range.
The amount of state aid per student varies from district to district, and even grade to grade. But it can run in the $3,500 to $4,000 a year range.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, who championed the expansion, said it's not fair to students trapped in their neighborhood schools.
"We're failing our children,'' she said. Lesko said the vouchers will give parents cash to find a private alternative.
Lesko acknowledged the amount available in a state voucher may not be enough to cover the cost of a private school.
For example, First Baptist Christian Academy in Sierra Vista charges $4,640 a year. At Desert Christian School in Tucson, tuition is $6,030 for those in elementary school and $8,640 for high schoolers.
And it will cost $9,500 a year for someone in kindergarten through fifth grade to attend Greenfields Country Day School; the price rises to $13,750 for grades 6 through 8 and $14,200 for high schoolers.
But Lesko sidestepped the question of whether the vouchers will help only parents who can afford to pay the balance out of pocket, essentially leaving failing schools with the poorest of the poor.
"That's certainly not my goal,'' she said. "My goal is to make sure that all students, no matter what level they're at, have choices.''
Lesko said, though, she has no problem with failing schools getting less money because of fewer students.
"Why would we continue funding a school on a per-student basis that continues to fail?'' she said. Lesko said that is like a homeowner continuing to pay a contractor who is doing a bad job.
That's also the assessment of Sidney Hay, lobbyist for American Federation for Children, a nationwide group that promotes school choice.
"Bad schools need to close,'' she said.
Cara Rene, a spokesman for Tucson Unified School District, called the possibility of losing students -- and the funding that goes with them -- "troubling.''
She said the district, which has 28 D-rated schools that serve 15,000 students, is taking steps to improve achievement and hopes to reduce that number. That includes special intervention programs to help low-achieving students in reading and math as well as teacher training.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said Brewer signed the legislation because she supports school choice.
"She is not going to accept trapping families and trapping students in poor schools that they cannot escape,'' he said.
Benson acknowledged the vouchers may not cover the tuition that private and parochial schools are now charging.
"It's not a cure-all for everyone,'' he said. "It's not going to allow every student in every financial circumstance to attend every private school that they wish.''
But Hay said she's not worried that the poorest students will be left out.
"I guarantee you there will be new private schools opening up in those areas,'' she said. "This will have a downward pressure on the tuition rate because you have now established a big, new market.''
And Hay said there are ways to teach effectively for less than the state is spending like getting coursework online "and have a mentor teacher there that's guiding the kids.''
"The model of the past, where you had to have a big building and lots of teachers and lots of facility, that's changing because of technology,'' she said.
But Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said what's missing is the oversight that exists of traditional public schools that are spending tax dollars.
"There's absolutely no evidence these programs improve academic performance because there's no accountability that go along with this program,'' he said.
"We don't know where the money goes, how it's spent and what kind of performance by the kids in the program,'' Meyer continued. He specifically noted that these private schools are exempt from the same kind of requirements to test students annually -- and to make those results available to the public.
Ryan Ducharme, press aide to School Superintendent John Huppenthal, said the voucher program will require families to "do their homework.''
"Parents need to become experts,'' he said. He said that includes not just learning more about what private schools offer and how well they perform academically but even whether it makes financial sense to accept a voucher -- and have to pay additional tuition -- as opposed to having a student remain in a public school.
The expansion comes even as foes of the existing program are challenging its legality in court. The lawsuit by the Arizona Education Association, claims vouchers run afoul of a constitutional provision barring state aid to private and parochial schools.
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Maria del Mar Verdin refused earlier this year to block the program while the case makes its way through the court.
She acknowledged the Arizona Supreme Court voided a voucher program three years ago. But Verdin said there are "substantive differences'' between the two programs.
Verdin said this new program creates an account for the student where a parent can choose to fund various educational services and programs. And she said that, unlike the earlier voucher program where the funds were turned over directly to the private or parochial school, this allows parents to tap that fund, as needed, for expenses from various sources.
"The exercise of parental choice among education options makes the program constitutional,'' Vedin wrote.
Alexis Huicochea of the Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.