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Updated Mar 26, 2014 - 4:22 pm

Arizona school voucher change approved

PHOENIX -- Proponents of Arizona's school voucher program say a bill approved by a House of Representatives committee Wednesday would make it easier for parents of special needs students to access additional funding.

Senate Bill 1237 by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, would allow parents of special needs children enrolled in the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program to get approval for extra funding from an independent contractor instead of going through the school district the child previously attended.

It also would give the department the option of reimbursing school districts who verify that a student is special needs since those districts no longer receive funding for the student, although an official said the department would rather contract out the services.

The House Committee on Appropriations approved the bill with a 6-1 vote.

But although the bill had strong bipartisan support, many in the education community opposed it because of a provision that would allow the state Department of Education to give all students in the program extra funding that many say is meant only for students who previously attended charter schools.

Under the program, students 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, home-schooling and certain other expenses such as tutoring.

But the department of education says the wording in the statute is vague, and they decided to grant the additional funding to all students this year. The department has given out $1,684 to $1,963 in extra funding to each student in the program. The extra money is based on what students who attend charter schools receive, which is higher than the public school rate. Democrats and education advocates say this violates state statute.

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 public schools that have received a poor grade from the state and to those with active military parents.

The Arizona Supreme Court has upheld the program by refusing to overrule a lower court's decision that rejected opponents' arguments that the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program violates state constitutional prohibitions on using public money to support religious or private schools. The courts say it is constitutional because parents decide how to spend the money.

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