Brewer vetoes legislation to expand voucher-like program for private schools - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Brewer vetoes legislation to expand voucher-like program for private schools

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Posted: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 10:28 pm | Updated: 8:19 am, Mon Apr 9, 2012.

Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed an expansion of a program to use state funds to send children to private schools, saying the move goes too far.

In her fourth veto of the session Thursday, Brewer said she has been a strong supporter of "educational options'' for children beyond the traditional public school system. And the governor pointed out she signed legislation earlier this year expanding the ability of Arizonans to divert money they would otherwise owe in income taxes to instead provide scholarships for students to attend private and parochial schools.

"But we must also ensure that government is not artificially manipulated the market through state budget or tax policy in a manner that would make an otherwise viable option so unattractive that it undermines rational choice in a competitive market,'' Brewer wrote.

A year-old law allows parents of students identified as disabled to get what amounts to a voucher to send the child to a private school that might be better suited to their needs. That voucher -- technically called an "empowerment scholarship account'' -- is equal to 90 percent of what the state would otherwise pay the public school.

This new proposal would have greatly expanded the program to cover any child attending a school or in a school district that has been assigned a letter grade of D or F in its achievement level by the state Department of Education. Children identified as gifted also could get a voucher, as could a child of a member of the armed forces.

Proponents of the legislation have made no secret the ultimate goal is to provide total choice to parents of where to send their children -- and to give them state funds to do that.

Brewer said, though, there needs to be a balance, with the state having "a system of different educational settings to cater to the different ways in which our students learn.''

"A well-equipped system with choice, competition and innovation -- these are the keys to our educational system,'' the governor wrote. "Local school districts, charter schools, home school, private and parochial schools all have an important role to play.''

Brewer said she is willing to consider some provisions of the bill designed to fix -- but not expand -- the existing voucher program.

But the governor pointed out that she and lawmakers have yet to agree on a budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, including how much will be available to fund public schools. Brewer said she is willing to reconsider those fixes and possible expansion of the empowerment accounts once there is a budget deal.

The legality of the existing empowerment accounts remains in dispute.

Earlier this year, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge rejected a request by the Arizona Education Association and other groups to block implementation of the accounts.

Judge Maria del Mar Verdin said there is a "strong showing'' the law does not violate a constitutional provision which specifically bars state aid to private and parochial schools. She also concluded the program, approved last year, likely does not run afoul of another constitutional section precluding the use of public money for religious worship, exercise or instruction even though parents could use the scholarship proceeds for a religious education.

That ruling, however, is not the last word. While the judge refused to issue an injunction, she left the door open to being convinced otherwise after a full trial.

And the AEA also has appealed the denial of the injunction.

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