Senate Tea-Publicans advance unconstitutional school ‘vouchers for all’ bill

Don’t say that I didn’t warn you. School ‘vouchers for all’ bills scheduled to be heard beginning Thursday.

Our lawless Tea-Publican legislators advanced their unconstitutional “vouchers for all” bill in the state Senate to open the door to all 1.1 million students in Arizona schools to use state dollars to attend private or parochial schools. Lawmakers move Arizona closer to school-voucher option for all students:

The 4-3 vote by the Senate Education Committee followed hours of testimony from people who already get what lawmakers call “empowerment scholarship accounts,” detailing how they’ve helped their children. Eligible groups include children with special needs, those living on tribal reservations and those who attend schools rated D or F, among others.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, sponsor of SB 1431, said vouchers save taxpayer money. She said schools get an average of $9,529 a year for each student while a typical voucher is in the $5,200 range.

But Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials said that’s misleading.

He said the $9,529 figure includes federal aid to schools as well as locally raised dollars for bonds and overrides. Essigs said the actual amount paid in state aid to schools is an average of $1,100 less per student than a voucher for an elementary school child; for high schools the difference is $1,200 per child, he said.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said there is no danger of a wholesale shifting of funds from public schools if SB 1431 is approved and all students are eligible for vouchers. He cited existing law that limits vouchers to no more than one-half of a percent of all students, a figure that computes to about 5,500 students.

What Smith did not say, though, is that the cap will end in 2019, removing all limits.

Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, argued that if state dollars are going to private schools, the schools should have to comply with the same regulations that apply to all public schools. That includes not only rules testing and accounting but also the mandate to accept all students, including those with special needs, who private and parochial schools can turn away.

Committee members rejected his amendment. The legislation heads to a vote of the full Senate.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, broke ranks with her Republican colleagues in opposing SB 1431. She said she supports school choice but that a level playing field is needed, including “the same level of accountability and transparency.”

She said she cannot support having tax dollars going to private and parochial schools until the state adequately funds the public schools it is required to maintain.

“We need to resolve the teacher shortage,” Brophy McGee said. “We need to get us somewhere in the middle of the pack (nationally) of school per-pupil funding.”

Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, said the reason that some children opt for alternatives is “we’re not funding public schools.”

Lesko’s bill is the culmination of a multiyear effort to further expand the concept of “school choice.”

Arizona already has options. Students need not attend their neighborhood school but can go to any other public school in the state that has space.

The state also has an extensive system of charter schools. These are technically public schools which can be run by nonprofit or for-profit corporations. While they are exempt from some state regulations, they cannot turn away students they do not want. They also cannot charge tuition higher than the state aid they receive.

In 2011, lawmakers approved a program to allow students who cannot get their special needs met at public schools to receive a voucher to pay tuition and fees at private schools.

Since that time the law has been expanded to include foster care children, children in military families, students residing on reservations and those in D- and F-rated schools or school districts.

Proponents never made a secret of their goal of universal vouchers. Until now, however, Lesko has been unable to line up the vote for an all-comers plan.

A key objection has been lack of accountability. Hoping to address that, SB 1431 requires students in grades 3 through 12 who use vouchers to take a nationally recognized achievement test, advanced placement exam or any college admissions test that assesses reading and math.

But the results would not be made public — as they are for public schools — and would be provided only to parents. Lesko said that’s sufficient.

“After all, it is the parents that decide what is the best education for their child,” she said. “And they are the ones that will be able to make sure that whatever choice they make, that it’s living up to their standards.”

“For some kids the local school doesn’t work or isn’t working,” said Sydney Hay of the American Federation for Children, which lobbies for vouchers and similar programs nationwide.

Foes cited the high cost of private schools — some charge more than $10,000 a year — and said the vouchers become a subsidy of state dollars to parents whose children already are enrolled. For everyone else, said parent Sarah Stohr, the concept of school choice is an illusion.

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Stohr told lawmakers that if they really care about children, they would “finally choose to fully and adequately fund our public schools so that no parent feels like their neighborhood school isn’t an excellent choice for them.”

Tory Roberg of the Secular Coalition for Arizona said her objections relate to the idea of using tax dollars to help children go to parochial schools, saying it amounts to using public funds “for the purpose of religious indoctrination.”

Which is an inartful way of explaining that it is unconstitutional. The Arizona Constitution prohibits state funding to private and parochial schools:

Article 2, Section 12: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”

Article 11, Section 7: “No sectarian instruction shall be imparted in any school or state educational institution that may be established under this Constitution, and no religious or political test or qualification shall ever be required as a condition of admission into any public educational institution of the state, as teacher, student, or pupil;”

In Cain v. Horne (Cain II), 220 Ariz. 77, 202 P.3d 1178 (2009), the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s previous attempt at a “vouchers for all” program as unconstitutional.

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