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Updated Mar 3, 2014 - 6:28 pm

Change makes voucher expansion plan even bigger

PHOENIX -- The sponsor of a bill that would vastly expand the state's school voucher program introduced an amendment Monday that would make it even bigger by allowing students from most Arizona schools to enroll.

Opponents say the program takes taxpayer money from public schools and gives it to private institutions that cannot be held publicly accountable.

The House was set to debate HB2291, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, on Monday, but delayed a vote for the second time since last week.

Lesko said the state Department of Education expressed concern with the original bill language, which would have expanded the program to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, or to those whose family income is 15 percent above that threshold. Education officials said it would be difficult to confirm whether families meet those criteria.

To resolve that issue, Lesko's amendment expands the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program even further. The bill would make students in schools that have large low-income populations and qualify for extra federal aid eligible for the vouchers.

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

The amendment would mean about 73 percent of the state's students, or 880,000 children, would be eligible to use public money for private school, according to the Arizona Education Association.

"At this point, not many parents are taking advantage of this program. I think that's frustrating ESA proponents. They're trying to accelerate eligibility," Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association.

Lesko said opponents' claims that her bill could obliterate public schools are inaccurate and unfounded. The program is capped at 5,000 new enrollees per year. That cap expires in 2019.

However, Democrats who oppose the program say it is likely Republicans will eliminate the cap as soon as next year.

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.

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