Arizona school voucher bill unlikely to move forward

PHOENIX - Legislation to let every child attend private and parochial schools on the public dime is on life support, and possibly dead - at least in its current form.

Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, conceded Monday he lacks sufficient votes for final approval of HB 2482. Several Republicans are refusing to go along with the proposal to remove virtually all barriers to youngsters getting such funding.

So Olson is now offering to make significant changes to round up votes. That includes keeping in place, at least until 2025, a cap that limits limit how many youngsters are eligible to take tax dollars for a private education.

But all that would do is postpone a wide-open voucher plan another few years. And even that may not be enough to push the measure over the top.

"I have received an outpouring of constituent communications that express concern over this legislation," said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek. She will not support the legislation.

And Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, said he does not accept the arguments by proponents that giving parents money to send their children to private and parochial schools saves money for the state.

Olson has another problem: Timing.

His push for vouchers comes as Gov. Doug Ducey wants voters to approve taking $3.5 billion from an education trust fund account to restore aid cut in prior years from public schools. And Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said giving more tax dollars to parents to send their children to private schools just ahead of the May 17 special election sends a bad message.

"This is not the year to do it," said Fann. "We have many more important things to do, like getting (Proposition) 123 through."

The governor has not taken a position on the voucher legislation. But even Ducey press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss is concerned about anything that diverts attention or votes from his pet project.

"The governor has made it very clear that the thing he's focused on every day is the effort that's on the ballot," Scarpinato told Capitol Media Services. "It's his top priority."

The fight is over what proponents call "empowerment scholarship accounts."

Originally approved in 2011, they were designed especially for parents whose children have special needs that could not be met in public schools. The law also has a cap of no more than one-half percent of all children in public schools, a figure that currently comes out to about 5,500 students.

Since then, legislators have repeatedly expanded the plan. For example, it now covers all students enrolled in schools rated D or F. And children on reservations now are automatically eligible.

HB 2482, awaiting a House vote, would phase out any limits, to the point that any child in public schools in 2020 - there are 1.1 million today - could get a voucher.

Olson, however, said this "is not going to be a significant change."

He pointed out Arizona already has open enrollment, with students able to attend any public school that has space for them. Students also can attend charter schools which under Arizona law can be operated by both nonprofit and for-profit corporations.

The difference, though, is that all these are public schools which cannot pick and choose among applicants and cannot charge parents anything beyond what the state pays. And vouchers can be used at private and parochial schools which are not subject to state regulations, can include religious instruction and can charge parents more than the vouchers provide.

Coleman said the idea behind vouchers made sense at one time.

"When it started, it was intended to aid those who perhaps the public schools were not servicing," he said, meaning children who were not flourishing in public schools, whether because of certain learning disabilities of physical infirmities.

"Expanding it to everyone at this point is problematic," Coleman said. "It makes it far more difficult for school districts to budget, to know what their needs are going to be the following year."

Olson, however, said he sees this in much simpler terms.

"School choice is right," he said.

That, however, still leaves the timing problem.

Approval of Proposition 123 would settle a lawsuit brought by schools and education groups charging that lawmakers illegally ignored a 2000 voter-approved requirement to increase state aid to schools each year to account for inflation.

The Arizona Supreme Court already has ruled lawmakers broke the law. The amount actually owed was still being debated in courts when Gov. Doug Ducey proposed tapping the trust fund.

But none of that will happen unless voters approve the measure, something that could be endangered by the voucher plan.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, said his organization will honor its commitment to support Proposition 123 even if lawmakers approve vouchers. But Morrill said that approving a voucher plan likely would temper the enthusiasm for teachers to go door to door to get people to the polls.