Arizona Lawmakers Look to Expand Eligibility on Controversial "Empowerment Scholarships"

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A bill introduced this week could let a majority of Arizona students become eligible to receive state money to attend private school.

Senate Bill 1236 would considerably expand the qualifications for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), especially lower-income families. ESAs provide debit cards pre-loaded with state money to parents, who then can spend the money on private school tuition, books and other school-related fees.

ESA was created by state law in 2011, originally so children with physical and mental disabilities could attend schools with resources better suited to their needs. In 2012, a law enabled foster children, children with one or more parents on active-duty in the military, and children enrolled in public schools that received grades of "D" or "F" from the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) to also apply for ESAs.

SB 1236 would increase eligibility in the 2016-17 school year to allow children in the free or reduced price lunch program to apply, adding families who are 15 percent above the economic eligibility standards in the following year, and an additional 15 percent each year following. In the 2017-18 school year, children of emergency-response teams like police officers and firefighters would qualify, as would siblings of children already in the program.

"It could be upwards of 700,000 or 800,000 students, which is the majority of students in Arizona," ADE legislative liaison Aiden Fleming said. "It'd be harder to say who's excluded than who's included."

The bill doesn't expand the number of people in the program, just the number eligible to apply. The program caps new ESAs at 0.5 percent of the total number of students enrolled in school districts and charter schools throughout the state during the previous school year. The growth cap will continue through 2019. Even this school year, a relatively small number of students are enrolled; about 700 of the 200,000 children who are currently eligible have active ESAs.

Parents also may chose not to participate because ESAs don't cover every expense. According to ADE, children with disabilities receive around $13,000 on average, while children who otherwise qualify receive an average of $5,000. Depending on the school and the amount they receive, families might need to pay out of their own pocket as well.

But the scholarship program is not without controversy. Public education groups like the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) are taking the case to the Arizona Supreme Court, on the grounds that ESAs violate the state constitution because public money goes to private schools.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled in 2012 that ESAs do not violate the law because the money first goes to the parents, who can then decide how to spend it. The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in October 2013. But ASBA has additional concerns.

"It's like putting your money in a black hole," said Tracey Benson, ASBA's spokeswoman."When you provide taxpayer dollars to send kids to private schools, we have no idea of the outcome."

According to ASBA, it's too soon to tell whether ESAs will hurt public schools down the line. But Republican Senator Rick Murphy believes even public schools will improve as a result of the scholarships.

"In areas where school choice is more concentrated, the public schools in that area get better as well; they have to in order to convince the kids to stay there," Murphy said. "I think [the bill] will benefit all children."

Fourteen Republican legislators have signed on in support of the bill, which has received committee assignments.

An additional bill, SB 1237, was also introduced this week to more clearly define ESA school instruction and money regulation.

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