By Matthew Hendley
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By Jason P. Woodbury
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After the dust cleared from the November election, it was widely assumed that school vouchers were a done deal.
After all, Fife Symington was still governor, aided by the recently converted former state schools chief, C. Diane Bishop. Lisa Graham, who formerly led the voucher charge in the legislature, was elected superintendent of public instruction. Voucher advocates John Huppenthal and Dan Shottel would be named to head the Senate and House Education committees.
But still, no vouchers. Although it's not for a lack of trying.
At least four different voucher bills were introduced into the legislature this session. All of them appear to have died.
Huppenthal, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced a proposal to provide $1,500 each for 2,000 low-income students. It was defeated in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Huppenthal introduced another bill that would have phased in vouchers during the next ten years. But that never made it out of the Education committee. Yet a third Huppenthal bill, this one in the House, would have provided a tax refund for private-school tuition. It wasn't even heard.
On the House side, Shottel, also a Republican, proposed a two-year pilot program. Shottel's bill would provide $3,500 per student for up to 2 percent of the population in each school district. Of that, $2,500 would go toward private-school tuition and $1,000 would remain in the public school district losing the student.
Shottel's bill passed through both the House Education and Appropriations committees, but didn't have the votes to make it through the House Rules Committee. The bill could be resurrected, but legislators say it's not likely.
Meanwhile, another bill out of Symington's office, via former state schools superintendent Bishop, would have allowed the state to put into receivership schools that don't measure up academically. Tucked inside is a proposal that would have allowed any student attending a school that fell into receivership to transfer to another public or private school on the state's dollar. But that bill also appears to be dead.
So what gives? Primarily, there is no big public outcry for vouchers. Legislators report having received few, if any, phone calls from constituents about vouchers. No one other than politicos are banging on the doors of elected officials demanding that they receive assistance to send their children to private school.
"Our public has not yet expressed itself favorably for that [pro-voucher] position," says Representative Joe Eddie Lopez, a west Phoenix Democrat who serves on the Phoenix Union High School District Governing Board. The voucher movement also lost a lot of steam last year, when various other reform measures were approved without it. Specifically, the establishment of charter schools and open enrollment.
That gave a lot of moderate voucher supporters--including Hispanic Democrats--what they really wanted, an alternative to their neighborhood public school. "The implications for charters are much more far-reaching than vouchers," says Senator Ruth Solomon, a Tucson Republican. "I don't understand in this situation why anyone is talking about vouchers."
Constituents, it seems, just aren't as angry as they used to be about education. Or maybe they're just tired of being angry. In either case, there's really no compelling reason for lawmakers to approve a voucher plan. And a lot of reasons not to.
The education groups--primarily the teachers and school board members associations--still vehemently oppose the notion. That's nothing new, but also nothing to be brushed off lightly. They wield a lot of power, through emotional ties as well as votes, and are generally credited with having kept vouchers out of Arizona in previous years. A good portion of the state's legislators are either former school employees or school board members, are in some way related to school employees or have business ties with the schools.
Along with the charter schools and the other reform measures came funding, however minimal. A voucher plan would require yet more money, at least at the onset.
Meanwhile, private schools aren't exactly banging down the doors, either. Most don't have much room for more children. And the private schools would likely have to go through state accreditation and follow federal and state guidelines to qualify for voucher money.
The exception is religious schools, which would gladly educate more children, but not without more money. And since they can't qualify for any other public funding because they teach religion, vouchers are their only chance for education cash. Huppenthal promises to make another try at a voucher proposal before the end of the session, but isn't optimistic about its future. It's too quiet.