voucher bill

Republican senators gave the go-ahead Monday for what could be a huge expansion in the use of tax dollars to send children to private and parochial schools.

But it may not be the last word.

On a 16-14 party-line vote, lawmakers advanced SB 1452 that Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said will give new educational opportunities to students living in poverty. He said it is designed to ensure these children are not effectively trapped in neighborhood public schools that do not meet their needs.

It even allows parents to use their voucher dollars to finance transportation to get their youngsters to schools that are not nearby, including options like taxis and rideshare services.

And Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said there is a particular need in the wake of COVID-19, which has resulted in the closure of many public schools.

He said that has sent many parents looking for private schools that do have in-person instruction. What SB 1452 does, Petersen said, is make that a more realistic option for families who cannot otherwise afford it.

But the legislation took a detour last Tuesday.

In what appears to be a bit of political payback, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who a day earlier had voted for the measure, persuaded 19 of her colleagues to support her motion to reconsider SB 1452. 

That included not only all 14 Democrats who have opposed the bill all along but six Republicans, including herself, who voted for the plan.

Her action came immediately after the Senate, on a tie vote, killed her proposal to make it easier to remove people from the “permanent early voting list.’’ Boyer voted with the Democrats to kill her SB 1069.

Ugenti-Rita did not respond to a request by Capitol Media Services for an explanation of her action. 

But Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said it was abundantly clear in her mind what was occurring: retaliation. “Sometimes I feel like I have returned back to high school,’’ she said.

“I came here to vote on the merit of the bills,’’ Townsend continued. “And I’m horrified by what I saw this afternoon.’’

The vote does not necessarily mean that Boyer’s plan to make a majority of Arizona public school students eligible for vouchers of state tax dollars to attend private or parochial schools is dead. But it means it won’t move forward to the House until the dispute is settled.

Giving the bill another look is in line with what Democrats like Sen. Rebecca Rios of Phoenix want.

“We’re going to do this under the guise of helping poor children and children of color,’’ she said. 

Sen. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, said there are ways to “game’’ the system of vouchers, formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts.’’

She pointed out that eligibility extends to any student attending schools, which have enough poor students to classify them as eligible for federal Title I funds. The income of any given child is irrelevant.

That potentially makes more than 700,000 students eligible for the vouchers out of the 1.1 million youngsters in public schools.

Engel pointed out that Boyer’s bill says that a student need be in a Title I school for just 30 days to qualify. And given Arizona’s open-enrollment policies, she said, a parent of means who wants a voucher could put a child into a Title I school for a month, meet the requirement, and then be eligible for those state dollars to send the youngster to a private or parochial school.

The debate on the bill, which now goes to the House, took on racial overtones.

“This 100 percent furthers de facto, if not de jure, segregation,” said Sen. Martin Quezada.

That drew an angry reaction from Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who pointed out that civil rights leader H.K. Matthews supports the bill and the whole concept of vouchers.

“If the system is failing a low-income child, you are not allowed to fund your system off the back of that child and cry ‘racism’ if the child has an opportunity to leave,’’ he quoted Matthews.

 “School choice is an extension of the civil rights movement because it gives parents, especially low-income and minority parents, the rights and resources to choose any school their child needs.’’

Boyer put a finer point on it.

“A family choosing for themselves to be in any school that works best for their child?’’ he said. “That’s not segregation. That’s freedom.’’

Rios, however, said the vouchers of about $6,400 are not enough to help those truly in need as it does not cover the full cost of tuition at a private or parochial school. The result, she said is that only the families who can afford the difference will be able to take advantage of this.

Sen. Tony Navarrette, D-Phoenix, said state lawmakers, in declining to add needed dollars, had created “a manufactured crisis’’ in public schools to then use as an excuse to say that students need vouchers to go elsewhere.

If the party-line stance in favor of expansion holds, the measure should clear the House where Republicans have a 31-29 edge. And Gov. Doug Ducey has signed other voucher bills that have reached his desk.

But the last time GOP lawmakers sought to expand, eligibility foes gathered enough signatures on petitions to send the issue directly to votes. And they overrode the legislative decision by a 2-1 margin.

There also has been some discussion about a legal challenge should the measure become law.

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