Arizona Public School Students Could Get State Money to Attend Private Schools

A bill decried by critics as another assault on public education is advancing in the Arizona Legislature.

It would allow every Arizona public school student to attend a private school at the expense of taxpayers.

Currently, only a limited number of students can attend private schools using state money through the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Senate Bill 1279 would lift current restrictions and allow all 1.1 million public school students in Arizona to qualify for the program by 2020.

The Senate approved the bill 17-13. Last week, the House was scheduled to vote on House Bill 2482, which is identical to the Senate bill, but the vote was put on hold.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program began five years ago, and only students with disabilities qualified for it. The program since has expanded to other students, including students attending low-performing schools, the children of military families, and those living on Native American reservations.

Once students are approved for the program, an education savings account similar to a checking account is created for them. Their parents or guardians can use the funds in the account to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition. They also can use the money on homeschooling or save some of it for college.

Supporters of SB 1279 and HB 2482 say the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona gives parents more school choices for their children.

But opponents say the bill would take away funding from public schools and send it to private schools at a time when there’s a pressing need for a bigger investment in public education.

“When we come down here session after session and talk about classrooms being overcrowded, classrooms having outdated textbooks and no technology, the answer we get is: 'Sorry, there is no money,'” Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of the Children's Action Alliance, said outside the state Capitol. “That is just not a true answer. The money is being diverted.”

She added that the state’s private school tax credits already take away funding from public schools and that the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program would gut public education funding even more.

Arizona households and businesses already can make tax-deductible donations to tuition organizations that give scholarships to students wanting to attend private schools.

The Children's Action Alliance released a report showing that private school tax credits diverted more than $100 million from the state budget in 2013. Naimark said it’s funding that could’ve gone to public schools.

Dick Foreman, president and CEO of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, also spoke out against expanding the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, saying it could lead to closure of some public schools.

He also said he’s worried that business leaders looking to come to Arizona could go elsewhere if they see a “lack of commitment to our public education system.”

In a phone interview with New Times, Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, made the case that the Empowerment Scholarship Account program offers a cheaper way to educate students in Arizona. He noted that students receive an average of $5,000 a year in their education savings accounts whereas the average amount taxpayers spend every year per student attending an Arizona public school is about $8,900.

“We’re talking about a savings of $3,000 to $4,000 per child every year,” Butcher said.

He added that the Empowerment Scholarship Account program gives children access to private schools and a host of education-related services that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

He pointed to a recent study he co-authored that found more than one-third of Arizona families use an education savings account for multiple purposes — such as tutoring, therapy, online classes, and textbooks — not just for private school tuition.

“I think that they are a very valuable way to give children a chance at the American Dream,” Butcher said about education savings accounts.

Five states, including Arizona, have made education savings accounts available to some students. If SB 1279 and HB 2482 are approved, Arizona will become the second state to implement a law that makes the education savings accounts available to all public school students. Nevada became the first to do this earlier this year. 

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