House Ways and Means Committee advances unconstitutional ’empowerment scholarship accounts’

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Snap quiz class. Tell me what is wrong with this headline from the Arizona Daily Star's creative headline writer: Expanding state aid to private and parochial schools on track. Congratulations class! You are all way smarter than the Star's creative headline writer.

Education_appleThis is a clear violation of the Arizona Constitution which 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;"

Several years ago, the Goldwater institute convinced the Arizona Supreme Court to accept a sort of "straw man exchange" argument common in real estate transactions to uphold tax credits that supported private and parochial schools. The argument was that the money went to the parents, not directly from the state to the schools, and thus did not violate the constitutional provisions above. The legal fiction created by the Court was in error, but established a legal precedent that the Goldwater Institute has been trying to exploit ever since.

And this is exactly what our Tea-Publican controlled legislature is hoping to accomplish with these so-called "empowerment scholarship accounts." Howard Fischer reports:

A House panel agreed Monday to allow hundreds of thousands of children to attend private and parochial schools at public expense — a vote one legislator said is part of a radical agenda to destroy public schools.

HB 2291 (.pdf) would expand an existing voucher-like system to include any student who is eligible for federal free or reduced-price lunch programs. That is as high as $36,131 for a family of three, $43,568 for a family of four and $51,005 for a family of five.

Further, the legislation approved by the House Ways and Means Committee would annually boost the eligibility figure by 15 percent.

Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said he figures the legislation would immediately make 600,000 of the state’s more than 1 million children eligible to essentially have the state set up an account of tax dollars for them to use for tuition, fees and other costs of education outside the public school system. That, he said, would mean $3.6 billion public money “coming out of our public education system” for what proponents have called “empowerment scholarship accounts.”

And given the requirement for an annual adjustment, eligibility would continue to expand annually.

“It is extremely destructive to our public education system,” he said. “In fact, it continues along the road that certain extremist elements in this state have perpetrated on us to take away our empowerment from families and children by defunding public education even further, resulting in larger classroom sizes and less curriculum to choose from and a degradation of our traditional public school system.”

* * *

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who crafted the measure, did not dispute that money spent to send children to private and parochial schools would mean less for the public schools.

“I certainly hope you don’t think you’re advocating that we should pay the public school when they don’t have a child there,” she said. “They get paid per child.”

The legislation is the latest effort to expand what started out as a small program in 2011 to help parents of disabled children.

It provides the equivalent of 90 percent of what the state would pay to send the same child to a public school. The Department of Education figures the average non-disabled student gets $5,000 a year; the figure is $13,500 for a student with disabilities.

Since that time, legislators have extended assistance to any child in a public school rated D or F by the state Board of Education. State officials estimate about 200,000 youngsters already are eligible.

Lesko’s measure takes that a step further by using income as the main criteria.

Even parents whose income does not meet the criteria could benefit if one of them is a police officer, firefighter, emergency medical technician or other emergency responder.

* * *

Rep. Wheeler, however, focused not on how the program started but the perennial efforts to expand it.

“There have been elements in this Legislature and in state government that have had their crosshairs on the ultimate destruction of our public education system,” he said. “This is another serious attempt to accomplish that.”

Lesko said, “To say that we are trying to destroy public education is totally, totally untrue.”

The legislation comes as the legality of the whole plan is in front of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Way to bury the lede of the questionable legality in the very last line of your report, Howie. That should have been in your opening graphs.

3 responses to “House Ways and Means Committee advances unconstitutional ’empowerment scholarship accounts’

  1. 38 of the 50 state constitutions, including Arizona, ban direct aid to private and parochial schools. It is unconstitutional. And yes I know the history of this provision, the Blaine Amendment (1875), that was directed at Irish Catholic immigrants at the time.

    I am wondering how many of our Christian Reconstructionist and Dominionist legislators will support such direct aid going to Muslim schools. Jewish schools, Hindu schools, Buddhist schools, etc. It is fairly evident their intent is to provide direct state aid to Christian schools (now including Catholics).

  2. Scholarship accounts had a completely different effect in Arizona than in other states. Two decades of competition have toughened up our schools. Other states with a population 20 percent lower than our 6 million had ten times as many students go on empowerment accounts.

  3. Frances Perkins

    The one party dictatorship State that is Arizona does want to destroy public education and give it to for profit charter, internet “schools”, and private religious schools.