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Updated May 2, 2014 - 6:32 pm

Arizona education chief: Voucher students to get more cash

PHOENIX -- Arizona's top education official announced Friday that he'll start paying parents of all students in the state's voucher program the higher amount of money that charter school students receive from the state when they move to the program, a decision that could spark a lawsuit from public education advocates.

Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal said Friday that his interpretation of state law concluded that students who leave regular public schools should get the extra amount of money that those who leave charter schools receive. That's a matter of fairness, he said.

The issue was contentious for the Legislature in the just-completed session after Huppenthal said he already was providing extra money for all students. Last month, his office said it had actually not been paid.

A bill giving Huppenthal authority to pay all students the same was stripped of that provision last month, and lawmakers made competing claims about whether their intent was to allow Huppenthal to revive the practice.

State law provides 90 percent of basic state aid to children who leave regular schools, and those who leave charter schools also get 90 percent of the extra money those charters receive. Basic state aid varies from about $3,500 to $4,700 per student, and charter schools get an extra $1,700 to $1,900 per student.

Huppenthal is relying on a 2013 law expanding the state's Empowerment Scholarship Account program that he interprets as providing that extra money to all students in the program. But opponents in the Legislature made it clear they disagreed, putting their legislative intent in the record and arguing that the savings promised from the program would evaporate if Huppenthal got his way.

The Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Boards Association are reviewing whether what Huppenthal did was legal and are considering their options.

``On first blush the Department of Education is either trying to take a political loophole to advance a political ideology or they're violating the law. It has to be one or the other,'' said Tim Ogle, executive director of the school boards association. ``We will certainly get our legal team activated and analyze the key legal issues and determine the proper responses should this occur.''

The school-voucher program was created in 2011 for children with disabilities, and it has regularly grown. It was expanded last year to include children from schools that have received a poor grade from the state and students with active military parents. Two smaller expansions were enacted this year, but a much larger expansion that could have made most public students eligible failed.

Fewer than 700 students currently take the vouchers, but it is expected to grow. By 2019 more than 30,000 students could be using the vouchers to take their state aid money to pay for private or religious schools under state growth caps that expire that year.

Huppenthal said in a statement that his office will begin awarding the higher funding amounts for the 2014-2015 school year.

``The Arizona Department of Education requested clarification of the ESA statute from the Legislature this session, and despite extensive debate, the statute remains unchanged,'' he said. ``Therefore, I feel it is important to move forward with the interpretation that two students on the same program should be treated equally and with uniformity, upholding Arizona's equal protection philosophy.''

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