Lawmakers move Arizona closer to school-voucher option for all students writes Howard Fischer (Capitol Media Services) in the Daily Star.
A Senate panel agreed Thursday to open the door to allowing all 1.1 million students in Arizona schools to use state dollars to attend private or parochial schools, so that parents can choose.
The 4–3 vote by the Senate Education Committee followed hours of testimony from people who already get what lawmakers call “empowerment scholarship accounts,” detailing how they’ve helped their children. Eligible groups include children with special needs, those living on tribal reservations and those who attend schools rated D or F, among others.
Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, sponsor of SB 1431, said vouchers save taxpayer money. She said schools get an average of $9,529 a year for each student while a typical voucher is in the $5,200 range.
But Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials said that’s misleading. He said the $9,529 figure includes federal aid to schools as well as locally raised dollars for bonds and overrides. Essigs said the actual amount paid in state aid to schools is an average of $1,100 less per student than a voucher for an elementary school child; for high schools the difference is $1,200 per child, he said.
Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said there is no danger of a wholesale shifting of funds from public schools if SB 1431 is approved and all students are eligible for vouchers. He cited existing law that limits vouchers to no more than one-half of a percent of all students, a figure that computes to about 5,500 students.
What Smith did not say, though, is that the cap will end in 2019, removing all limits.
The actual cost may be substantially higher. Here are excerpts from the Senate fact sheet for SB1431.
Currently, ADE [AZ Department of Education] estimates there are 3,100 students enrolled in the ESA Program and approximately $46 million disbursed in FY 2017. Laws 2013, Chapter 250, caps the number of new ESAs approved by ADE at 0.5 percent of total public school enrollment through 2019, or approximately 5,500 new students annually.
There is a potential impact to the state General Fund associated with expanding eligibility in the ESA Program. The fiscal impact depends on the participation rate and where the students otherwise would have attended school.
Projecting the average disbursement ($46 million for 3,100 students) to all 1.1 million students shows that the cost to the state could be in the billions of dollars. Lesko is dead wrong in her claims about saving money.
[Scriber’s note: I can’t figure out why the Senate’s fact sheet seems to be at odds with the other per pupil amounts cited by Essigs above. Perhaps someone better schooled in education finance can comment and clarify.]
It does get worse. Lesko thinks hiding standardized test results from the public is good policy.
A key objection [to vouchers for all] has been lack of accountability. Hoping to address that, SB 1431 requires students in grades 3 through 12 who use vouchers to take a nationally recognized achievement test, advanced placement exam or any college admissions test that assesses reading and math.
But the results would not be made public — as they are for public schools — and would be provided only to parents. Lesko said that’s sufficient.
So any evidence that private schools are worse than (or even better than) public schools would not inform legislative actions. That is crappy public policy. Then again, this was never about making informed decisions.
But the bottom line on SB1431 is that it is unconstitutional.
Foes cited the high cost of private schools — some charge more than $10,000 a year — and said the vouchers become a subsidy of state dollars to parents whose children already are enrolled. For everyone else, said parent Sarah Stohr, the concept of school choice is an illusion.
“Single parents like me with no family support in this community have little true choice when it comes to choosing between my job and shuttling my child around town to a school that’s farther from my home,” she testified.
Stohr told lawmakers that if they really care about children, they would “finally choose to fully and adequately fund our public schools so that no parent feels like their neighborhood school isn’t an excellent choice for them.”
Tory Roberg of the Secular Coalition for Arizona said her objections relate to the idea of using tax dollars to help children go to parochial schools, saying it amounts to using public funds “for the purpose of religious indoctrination.”
AZBlueMeanie (Blog for Arizona) weighs on on how SB1431 violates the state constitution: Senate Tea-Publicans advance unconstitutional school ‘vouchers for all’ bill.
… The Arizona Constitution prohibits state funding to private and parochial schools:
Article 2, Section 12: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”
Article 11, Section 7: “No sectarian instruction shall be imparted in any school or state educational institution that may be established under this Constitution, and no religious or political test or qualification shall ever be required as a condition of admission into any public educational institution of the state, as teacher, student, or pupil;”
In Cain v. Horne (Cain II), 220 Ariz. 77, 202 P.3d 1178 (2009), the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s previous attempt at a “vouchers for all” program as unconstitutional.
Any way you cut it, the vouchers for all push is money laundering in a rather obvious attempt to skirt these constitutional prohibitions against using state funds for private, religious schools. If by statute, A cannot give money to C, then A routes money to B which then gives the money to C. Plug into this formula state funds (A), parents (B), and religious schools (C), and SB 1431 reduces to money laundering.