Arizona Capitol

Arizona House Votes Down Expansion of Taxpayer-Funded Private School Scholarships

The Arizona House of Representatives voted down a bill that would have expanded the taxpayer-funded private school scholarships known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

The ESA program is similar to a voucher program, but has been held up in court because it's not quite a voucher program -- the taxpayer money that would have gone to the public school district for a child is instead given to the parent (it's actually a little more money), and that money can only be spent on various, yet specific, education-related expenses, including private-school tuition.

See also:
-Arizona's "Empowerment Scholarship Accounts" Survive Court Challenge
-Lawmakers Look to Expand Eligibility on Controversial "Empowerment Scholarships"

Although several Republican-backed bills are calling for an expansion of the program, House Bill 2291 is the largest. The initial version of the bill called for expanding the program to include kids who are eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch programs.

Instead, the bill was amended to include any child who lives in a ZIP code where the median income is 185 percent or less of the federal poverty threshold for a family of four.

According to the budget analysts, this would have been the impact from the initial bill: "Starting in FY 2016, the bill is projected to increase state costs by approximately $46,100 in FY 2016, $3.5 million in FY 2017, $7.6 million in FY 2018 and $12.5 million in FY 2019 (the last year that program growth is capped) relative to current law."

According to the analysts, more than 100,000 more kids would be eligible for the program under this bill.

However, it's not being utilized to the fullest extent at the moment. About 150,000 public school students are currently eligible for ESAs. Due to state law, the cap (which increases each year) allows more than 5,500 students to participate in the program. This year, 692 kids are actually participating in the program.

That's taken into account in price the estimates quoted above.

"The bill is expected to incentivize additional students, especially private school participants, to enroll in ESAs," the budget analysis write. "Participation is projected to ramp up over a 3 year period of time, starting in FY 2017, so that the full cap is utilized by FY 2019. This increased usage of the existing cap results in the bill's fiscal impact."

Enough Republicans joined the Democrats to vote down the bill, 27-31.

There's an identical version of this bill in the Senate, however, it hasn't come to a final vote.

Expansions of the ESA program have been supported by the Goldwater Institute and Center for Arizona Policy.

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX.
Follow Matthew Hendley at @MatthewHendley.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley