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Updated Feb 17, 2014 - 11:09 pm

Arizona bills would expand program for private schools

PHOENIX -- A House committee on Monday approved one of two small expansions of a voucher-like program that allows students to use public funds for a private education.

The House Committee on Education voted in favor of a bill sponsored by Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, that would allow children of active military personnel and of those killed in action to bypass a waiting period to join the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

A much larger expansion was approved in a different committee last week. That bill would expand eligibility to students who meet free or reduced lunch requirements and to those whose family income exceeds the free and reduced lunch requirements by 15 percent. That income threshold would then increase by 15 percent every year.

Several education advocates who say the program is unconstitutional have sued the state. They also heavily criticized Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal last week for releasing automated calls promoting the program and private schools. Huppenthal defended the calls, which went out to 15,000 homes in poor-performing school districts in Phoenix and Tucson.

The House Committee on Education approved Borrelli's bill 6-2 on Monday. But it failed to pass another measure that would have expanded eligibility to children of police, firefighters and other emergency responders and to siblings of students already enrolled. The bill sponsored by Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, failed after Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, got an amendment approved that would require students in the program to take the same standardized tests that students in public schools take. Livingston and other Republicans opposed that amendment.

The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program began in 2011 and was aimed at children with disabilities. The program allows students to receive vouchers for 90 percent of the state's basic per-student funding for public schools. Parents can use the money to help pay for private school tuition and certain other expenses.

Legislators expanded the program last year to include children from schools that have received a poor grade from the state, and to those with active military parents.

Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, of Peoria, said about 700 students are enrolled in the program. Lesko is sponsoring the bill that would expand the program based on family income. Her bill, which was approved by the Committee on Ways and Means last week, would make nearly 600,000 additional Arizona students eligible. That's about half of the more than 1 million students enrolled in public K-12 schools in Arizona.

``I believe that we need to improve education, and to me it doesn't matter where that education takes place,'' Lesko said.

She said claims by opponents that her bill could obliterate public schools are inaccurate and unfounded. She added that the program is capped at 5,000 new enrollees per year. That cap expires in 2019. Students are selected on a first-come, first-served basis.

Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill said the program is an effort to privatize public education.

``Parents absolutely have the right to choose private school for their children, and they can use their private dollars. Taxpayers have no idea where these funds are going,'' Morrill said.

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