Arizona Education Association president Andrew Morrill addresses about 100 Gilbert teachers, family members and supporters who rallied outside the Gilbert Unified School District offices Tuesday prior to the governing board meeting.

By Michelle Reese, Tribune

Proponents of a voucher-like program are preparing to make them available to more than 400,000 students statewide now that court challenges to the initial program have been rebuffed.

Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute is working with Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, to expand existing eligibility requirements for what are known as Education Savings Accounts for all children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In essence, the taxpayer-funded program that can pay for things like tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, originally sold to the public as help for students with special needs or stuck in poor schools, would become an option for all.

The plan has provoked alarm at the Arizona Education Association, which fought, unsuccessfully, to block the program, first at the Capitol and then in the courts. AEA President Andrew Morrill said all this would do is drain needed dollars from a public school system, which he said has seen its funding slashed by a cumulative $1.6 billion since the recession began.

Butcher conceded that the plan, taken to its possible limits, could result in a drain of students — and the dollars that follow them — from public schools. He said the more likely outcome would be public schools becoming more efficient and even offering options like individual classes for home-schooled students on a tuition basis.

He said the bottom line is that parents would get to make the ultimate choices for their youngsters.

Morrill, however, said this is more designed to benefit parents who would send their children to private and parochial schools anyway. Butcher acknowledged that these parents would have access to the funds.

“On an individual basis, anybody would be supportive of a family's right to choose,” Morrill said. “But we have to balance that with an underfunded system that is making it difficult to educate over a million students.”

The new push is no surprise. Proponents of a statewide plan have been planting the seeds for years, first getting a program in 2011 for students with special needs to test the legal waters.

A trial judge subsequently ruled the system does not violate constitutional bans on aid to private and parochial schools, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeals. And while the case still has to go to the Arizona Supreme Court, lawmakers subsequently expanded it to all students attending schools rated “D” or “F.”

Butcher estimates 240,000 youngsters are now eligible.

But Lesko, who pushed through the prior expansions, has said from the start once the legal hurdles were overcome she would want to expand the program statewide.

Butcher said that makes sense.

“The idea is that, with a savings account, you can do something right now to change your child's experience,” he said.

The scholarships are essentially a checking account of state funds set up for parents to use for permissible expenses. Each account starts with $5,300 — essentially 90 percent of basic state aid paid to public schools —plus additional dollars for special needs.

Those funds can be used for tuition at private and parochial schools, but Butcher said he does not envision all parents who take advantage of the plan doing that.

“By law, you could buy public school classes,” he said, as long as the student is not enrolled in the school system, and get tutoring services as well.

Morrill, however, said the program is unnecessary, even for students in low-rated schools.

He said Arizona youngsters already have more choices than in most other states, with an extensive network of state-funded nonprofit and for-profit charter schools. There also is an open enrollment system at public schools, allowing students to attend any school that has space.

Morrill said this program is little more than a thinly disguised effort to funnel more state dollars into private and parochial schools, siphoning away needed dollars from the public school system.

Some data may back Morrill's contention there is no great demand from parents of students already in public schools for this voucher-like system. Out of the possible 240,000 youngsters eligible, the Department of Education reports just 709 currently taking advantage of it. Butcher said he's “not surprised.” He said the whole program is only three years old — and the one for failing schools started only this school year.

What that leaves, said Morrill, is a new source of dollars for parents already sending children to private and parochial schools.

One interesting problem if the expansion is approved is what happens with a separate tuition scholarships program. That is also funded through state tax dollars, albeit indirectly, with donors able to take a dollar-for-dollar credit on income taxes for what they give.

Butcher acknowledged that could create a situation where a student could get money from both an empowerment account and a scholarship financed by tax credits.

“Suddenly you've got more than what the public school system was providing before,” he said, a situation that would be politically untenable.

Butcher said the fact that a parent already is sending a child to a private school should not disqualify them from getting state funds through an expanded program.

“They pay property taxes, too,” he said.

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