Up to 120,000 more youngsters living in low-income neighborhoods could soon qualify for taxpayer funded tuition to private and parochial schools.
On a voice vote Wednesday the Senate approved legislation to expand the voucher-like program, now geared for only certain students, to all children living in zip codes where the average household income is below 185 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four. That currently computes out to $44,122 a year.
SB 1236, which still requires a final roll-call vote, does not make that an income limit for individual families. Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, said those who earn much more also would qualify for the state-paid tuition as long as the average income of their neighbors, as defined by postal zip codes, is below that figure.
The original measure would have included all children who meet economic eligibility requirements for free or reduced-price lunch programs, which also is capped off at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But Yee said that drew objections from officials at the Department of Education because it would have required them to get income data from individual families, data that now is not shared with the state.
Yee said the eligible areas are largely concentrated in south Tucson and Phoenix but said there are some other areas scattered throughout the state.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who is sponsoring the identical measure in the House, said far more children would have qualified using that individual test. Lesko, whose version is set for a House vote today, said she believes the new scaled-back version will prove more politically acceptable.
But Wednesday's Senate debate shows that is not the case.
Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Phoenix, said she does not believe that if lawmakers approve this measure that will be the end of it.
“I believe the goal is to eventually expand the program to the state's more than one million public and charter school children,” she said. Cajero Bedford said the result will be diverting “desperately needed money” away from public schools.
Yee said that can't happen, at least not under current laws. She pointed out that the program limits year-over-year increases in vouchers to one-half of 1 percent of students in public schools, a figure she put at about 5,400.
That annual cap on what are called “empowerment scholarship accounts” goes away in 2020. Lawmakers always can repeal it before then. They also remain free to make further eligibility expansions above and beyond the zip code income limits being approved this year.
Lesko has made no secret that she wants a much larger program, available to far more children. In fact she had crafted – and attempted to pass – a version that contained eligibility caps that would have opened the voucher program to about 850,000 of the 1.1 million youngsters now in public schools.
And those income limits would have increased annually to the point that every student in the state would be eligible for a voucher.
Democrats are not the only foes. Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she intends to vote against the measure when it comes to the House floor today – and any other expansion of the program.
“They were originally marketed as a savings to the state,” she said, with the idea that the vouchers equal 90 percent of what the state would otherwise pay for a student to attend public schools. But she said that's not the case.
Part of the problem is that 90 percent figure has been computed on what the state pays to send children to charter schools, and state aid to charter schools is higher than traditional public schools because they do not have access to things like local tax revenues.
Legislative budget staffers have put the voucher aid at $5,400 a year, more than what the state now pays in aid to regular public schools.
“There actually are going to be additional costs to the general fund to do this program,” Carter said. “That's not the way the program was originally designed.”
Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson, said it makes no sense to expand the program until there is some hard and fast data to determine if it is a wise use of tax dollars.
“Where is the academic accountability?” she asked. Students who get the vouchers are not required to take the same standardized tests as those in public schools.
“How can we measure the program's effectiveness if we have no yardstick?” Tovar asked.
Proponents have said such testing is unnecessary because the parents get to decide how to spend the money. They said parents would not use their funds in programs that do not work.
But Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said that is based on the premise that parents always are doing what is best for their children. He said there would not be more than 15,000 children in the state's child-welfare system if that were true.
Farley also said there is no requirement that individual parents be needy to qualify. He said that opens the treasury to families who can more than afford to send their youngsters to private schools.
But Yee noted that the program is available only to students who are switching from public schools. Those students already in private and parochial schools are ineligible for the vouchers.
There is an exception, though, for youngsters just starting kindergarten – if they live in the affected zip code.