John Huppenthal

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

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

The state treasury is going to pay more to help some children attend private and parochial schools this coming year than it would to keep them in public schools.

John Huppenthal, the state superintendent of public instruction, announced Friday he intends to read state law to require that the vouchers available to many students have to be computed based on what the state now pays in aid to charter schools.

Only thing is, that aid runs up to $1,963 more than the $3,500 to $5,000 provided on a per-student basis to public schools.

What that means is that a student who leaves a charter school with a voucher will get 90 percent of what the state had been paying for his or her education at that school. That means a savings to the state.

But under Huppenthal's interpretation of the law, a student who leaves a traditional public school will get that support — 90 percent of charter school funding — an amount that actually exceeds current state aid.

Jennifer Loredo, spokeswoman for the Arizona Education Association, said that's not what the statutes say. She said a lawsuit is likely in the works.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who is a supporter of what backers call empowerment scholarship accounts, said he agrees with Huppenthal's interpretation.

But Mesnard conceded the language is “ambiguous.” He agreed with Loredo on one point: It likely will be up to a judge to decide who is right.

Huppenthal's announcement Friday comes despite the fact that he had asked lawmakers to spell out in statute that vouchers should be based on charter school aid, but that language the superintendent sought actually was struck from the legislation on the last night of the session.

What that means, Loredo argued, is lawmakers specifically rejected Huppenthal's interpretation.

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Department of Education, conceded his boss sought that clarification. And he acknowledged that lawmakers did not adopt his requested language.

“But they also didn't change it and say, ‘Absolutely not, you're not doing that,’” Kotterman said.

What that did, Kotterman said, is left in place a “poorly worded statute.” And he said that, from Huppenthal's perspective, that leaves in place what he said is his interpretation: Every voucher recipient gets the same amount of money — even if it more than what the state was paying in the first place.

Huppenthal's action, unless overturned, undermines what had been one of the arguments about giving vouchers to students in the first place.

They were originally made available only to students with special needs. That was later expanded to any youngster attending a school rated D or F by the Department of Education, though there are fewer than 700 kids now getting vouchers and a cap in place through 2019 limits the number of new vouchers each year to less than 6,000.

And backers sought this year to expand eligibility after that cap disappears in 2020 to perhaps 80 percent of the 1.1 million students in public schools only to fall short.

Proponents have said these vouchers provide additional choices to parents beyond traditional public schools and charter schools.

But they also have pitched it as a savings to the state.

Vouchers are available only to students who had been in public or charter schools. And the claim was the treasury would be shelling out only 90 percent of what would otherwise be paid in aid.

This school year, those vouchers were based on that individual student's aid. So a youngster moving from a traditional school got 90 percent of that base state aid, a figure that generally runs anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000 depending on grade level and other factors like whether the youngster.

Students switching from charter schools got 90 percent of the base aid plus 90 percent of the additional aid paid to charter schools.

Next school year, Huppenthal intends to add in that additional aid — $1,684 to $1,963 paid to charter schools — into the formula for all students. And that means a higher cost to the treasury for students switching from traditional public schools.

Mesnard did not dispute that point.

But he said vouchers still save money for taxpayers overall because state aid covers only a portion of what it costs to educate students in public schools. Mesnard said the balance is made up by local residents through property taxes.

Jennifer Liewer, press aide to Huppenthal, said it is not up to her boss to decide whether vouchers for students moving from public schools should cost the state more than current aid. She said that is a policy matter for the Legislature and that her boss is simply interpreting the law.

Huppenthal was not available to comment, providing only a prepared statement defending the move on the basis of what he said is fairness.

“Two students on the same program should be treated equally and with uniformity,” he statement read.

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