State Superintendent John Huppenthal [Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

The state public schools' chief is defending his effort to convince parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private and parochial schools.

John Huppenthal acknowledged making a recording that a private group is using for “robocalls” urging parents to take advantage of a voucher-like program to pay education costs outside the public school system.

“That right,” he said. “You may be able to send your child to private school for free.”

Huppenthal tells recipients they should be getting something in the mail soon, and it tells parents if they can't wait to find out if they qualify, it provides a web site and even a place to text.

And many parents would: Estimates are that 200,000 of the 1.1 million children in public schools could opt out – and take their dollars with them. That's even before considering a measure now working its way through the Legislature that would immediately boost that figure to 600,000 – and eventually extend to everyone.

The calls have provoked an angry response from public school advocates. Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, called it “appalling” that Huppenthal, whose formal title is “superintendent of public instruction,” would advocate that parents remove their children from public schools.

Huppenthal would not respond to requests for an interview or to answer questions. Instead he issued a prepared statement saying his goal of publicizing what are called “empowerment scholarship accounts” was “to apprise parents of a unique program, not advocate for private school instruction over that of a public school education.”

And he said this was not a slap at those who teach in public schools.

“I work tirelessly every day to assure teachers and educators are supported, students are provided with excellent education opportunities,” Huppenthal said in his statement.

Jennifer Liewer, Huppenthal's spokesman, said the recording was made at the request of Alliance for School Choice, an organization that crafts legislation such as Arizona has to make public dollars available for private school tuition and fees. It works closely on that goal with the American Federation for Children.

That link, Morrill said, is significant: Campaign finance records show that latter group spent more than $63,000 on a radio ad to help elect Huppenthal in 2010.

Morrill acknowledged that was independent of Huppenthal's own campaign. He ran that year with public funds after agreeing not to take private donations.

Morrill suggested that Huppenthal, running for reelection with private funds this year, is “choosing his alliances” by trying to help out the organizations seeking to shift tax dollars to private and parochial schools.

Neither Huppenthal nor Liewer responded immediately to questions about any link between the 2010 support and his robocall.

The scholarships are available to students with disabilities, foster children, children of military families and, most recently, any child in a school rated “D” or “F” by the Department of Education. It provides 90 percent of what the state would pay for that same child to attend public schools.

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.

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