“Arizona empowerment accounts”: the new vouchers

by David Safier

First it was vouchers, but no one liked the word. Then it was "school choice," but that's awfully vague and covers too many bases. Now, the term of art for vouchers is "educational savings accounts" or, in a new Arizona bill, "Arizona empowerment accounts." HB2706 creates these vouchers-by-a-different-name for students who are physically and/or learning disabled.

Here's how I understand the reason behind the new label. We had direct vouchers for children in foster homes and/or with disabilties until the courts said they were unconstitutional. Since 80% of Arizona's private schools are religious — that percentage holds true nationwide — the court said the vouchers were tax money being used for religious purposes, which the AZ Constitution forbids.

But if the money is put into "empowerment accounts," somehow that is supposed to get around the rule about religion and state money. Voila! Arizona is once again safe for private school vouchers — on top of the tuition tax credits (also known as back door vouchers) which are about to get a 50% boost.

How many students will qualify for the new vouchers Arizona empowerment accounts if HB2706 becomes law? That's all in the definition of "a child with a disability." Some students fit the label easily, either because of physical disabilities or mental retardation. But schools throw around the less easily defined term "learning disability" with relative abandon. I always had a number of students designated as having learning disabilities in my high school English classes. Since the term isn't clearly defined, the label is easily abused, especially if someone wants to get a kid into a private school on the state's dime.

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