PHOENIX -- 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.
The 16-14 party-line vote advances SB 1452 which Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, bills as a measure targeted at giving 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 which 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 Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, urged lawmakers to take a closer look.
“We’re going to do this under the guise of helping poor children and children of color,’’ she said. But that’s not necessarily the case.
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.
And she said it’s even worse than that
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% furthers de facto, if not de jure, segregation,’’ said Sen. Martin Quezada.
That drew an angry reaction from Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. He pointed out that civil rights leader H.K. Matthews is a supporter of 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.
And Rios said no one is trapped in poorly performing schools. She noted that existing law makes vouchers available to any student in a school rated D or F.
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, a former teacher of the year, said she could support the concept. But that, she told colleagues, remains impossible until there are enough dollars for all education, including public schools.
Sen. Tony Navarrette, D-Phoenix, had a slightly different take. He 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 of public funds 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. That is because Boyer’s legislation would divert money from the Classroom Site Fund, financed by a voter-approved 0.6-cent sales tax, into the voucher fund.