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Updated Apr 21, 2014 - 5:30 pm

Arizona House to take up 2 school voucher bills

PHOENIX -- The Arizona Department of Education says it was mistaken when it informed the public and reporters last month that all students in the state's school voucher program are currently receiving extra funding that is meant for students from charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Arizona House of Representatives is slated to debate a bill that would allow the department to do just that.

The House on Monday morning delayed a debate on Senate Bill 1237, which would allow the education department to give all students in the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program an extra $1,684 to $1,963 that is meant for students who leave charter schools to join the program. Students in charters get more funding than those in traditional public schools.

The voucher program has been a contentious topic this legislative session, with several Republican bills that aim to expand the program. One bill approved in both chambers.

The House last week voted down a different bill that would have vastly expanded program eligibility to low-income students. House Bill 2291 would have added an additional 100,000 to 120,000 students who are eligible to participate, although the program has a cap in place that would only allow 5,400 new students into the program this year. That cap will grow in coming years. But the House voted down the bill with a 31-27 vote, with six key Republicans siding with Democrats.

The program was created in 2011 for children with disabilities. It was expanded last year to include children from schools that have received a poor grade from the state, and to students with active military parents. It allows students to use public funds for a private education, tutoring and other educational needs.

Senate Bill 1237, if approved, would legally allow the Department of Education to give all students in the program extra funding. There are currently 700 students enrolled, and an additional 2,479 have already applied to enroll in the upcoming school year. The bill also would allow parents of special needs children enrolled in the program to get verification from an independent contractor that would allow them to receive extra funding, instead of going through the school district the child previously attended.

Proponents of the expansions say the program gives parents more choices to best fit their child's educational needs. Opponents say it unfairly takes funding away from public schools while giving it to private institutions that cannot be held publicly accountable.

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