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Updated Mar 20, 2014 - 5:01 pm

Arizona bill would boost public money for private school

PHOENIX -- A last-minute amendment to a bill that aims to expand the state's school-voucher program would also increase the amount in public funds a student could receive to attend private school.

An Arizona Senate committee on Thursday approved the amendment to House Bill 2139, which expands Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts eligibility to siblings of students who are current or past recipients and to those who have not previously attended public school. Current rules require students to attend public school before being eligible.

But an amendment would also allocate more money to all students enrolled in the program. Students currently receive 90 percent of the state's basic per-student funding for public schools to use for private school tuition, home-schooling and certain other expenses like tutoring.

The amended bill would grant an additional $1,684 to $1,963 each for students enrolled in the program, depending on their grade level. The extra money is based on what students who attend charter schools receive, which is higher than for those who attend public schools.

The increase could amount to about $900,000 annually.

Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, which is behind the bill, said the public funds that students currently get sometimes don't cut it.

``When you have a child coming from a failing school, they are likely going to be behind. It is likely that they may not be at grade-level reading or grade-level at math. We need to at least give them, in their account, something that would take care of their main educational choices,'' Butcher said.

But opponents of the program and of the expansion say it unfairly takes money away from already-struggling public schools.

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said the bill does not give public schools equal footing in terms of funding. She also echoed what many education advocates say is a lack of accountability that takes place when public funds go to private institutions.

``We want to make sure our public schools are top notch, and that's our fiscal responsibility here,'' Landrum Taylor said.

The bill is one of several that try to boost the relatively new school-voucher program.

The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program began in 2011 and was aimed at children with disabilities. 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.

A bill by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts eligibility to most students in Arizona by opening up the program to those from schools that have large low-income populations and qualify for extra federal aid eligible for the vouchers. That bill has been delayed in the House for several weeks.

Thursday's amendment was approved along party lines with a 5-3 vote, although Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, said he was concerned that the increase was going too far. Still, he voted in favor of the bill.

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