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3/21/2014 1:59:00 PM
Arizona Supreme Court rules private-school vouchers legal

Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Arizona's controversial voucher-like system of using state funds to send children to private and parochial schools is legal, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Without comment, the high court refused to disturb a Court of Appeals decision which said the program, officially dubbed "empowerment scholarship accounts,' does not run afoul of a state constitutional provision that bars public funds from being used to subsidize private and parochial schools. That court said the fact the parents decide where the money goes, and not state officials, is sufficient to make the program legal.

Friday's decision also means the justices find no violation of a separate section of the constitution making it illegal to use tax dollars for religious worship or instruction.

The Supreme Court ruling officially deals with a challenge to a small-scale version of the vouchers enacted in 2011 to provide taxpayer-funded alternatives to public schools for students with special needs.

But Don Peters, attorney for the education groups that challenged the legality of the program, said it also effectively ratifies last year's legislation which expanded eligibility to all students attending schools rated D or F.

On paper that theoretically includes about 200,000 of the approximately 1.1 million youngsters in Arizona public schools.

There is a cap in place that limits year-to-year increases in vouchers by half a percent, about 5,000 a year. But that cap self-destructs in 2020.

Potentially more significant, Friday's decision likely removes any legal hurdle from a legislative effort this year to vastly expand the program to perhaps three-fourths of all children.

"I think if you can do this for any group of kids, you could do it for every kid in the state,' Peters conceded.

A bill to do something pretty close to that is awaiting a House vote.

The scholarships are essentially a checking account of state funds set up for parents to use for permissible expenses. Each account starts with $5,300 -- essentially 90 percent of basic state aid paid to public schools -- plus additional dollars for special needs.

HB 2291, approved earlier this year by the House Ways and Means Committee, would expand the program allowing vouchers for any student eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Estimates are that could encompass about 600,000 students after the annual cap is removed.

But Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, actually wants the full House to make the measure even broader than that: Rather than having to figure out which families are eligible, she is proposing to open the door to any student who would be attending a school eligible for federal Title I funding, meaning any school where at least half the students are considered low income. And that, she said, could ultimately boost eligibility to 800,000.

Lesko has stalled a vote by the full House while trying to deal with objections.

"I think the problem may be in the Senate,' she said, where she has yet to line up the necessary 16 votes.

Lesko said, though, that Friday's ruling "definitely helps' the chances for approval now that foes can no longer argue that an expanded program is unconstitutional and will lead to new lawsuits.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, one of the challengers, acknowledged that point. But he said it now makes it more important than ever for lawmakers to concentrate on the remaining question: Does the program work.

"If we're going to leave this in the arena of public policy, we had better make sure that we can say definitively voucher programs are good overall,' Morrill said.

There have been efforts by some legislators to attach requirements, such as having the students educated with these public funds in private and parochial schools take the same standardized tests as youngsters in public schools. But those has been beaten back by supporters who say that parents are in the best position to know if their children are getting the education they need.

Supporters of an expanded program face other hurdles in lining up votes, including questions of cost.

On paper, there should be a savings by expanding the program because the vouchers provide parents with an account equivalent to 90 percent of what the state would otherwise pay in aid for that child to attend a public school.

But an analysis of Lesko's original proposal done by the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee said her plan actually would require more state tax dollars than now, at least in part because the vouchers would be available to kindergarteners who might otherwise have attended private schools anyway at parental expense.

Potentially more significant, that $5,400 is computed on 90 percent of what the aid would have been if the student were in a charter school. That's because the state puts more money into charter schools because they do not have access to things like local tax revenues.

And that $5,400, according to budget analysts, actually is more than the state now pays in aid for most students in traditional public schools.

Lesko agreed there would be a hit to the state treasury. But she said that moving students out of traditional public schools saves money for taxpayers in general because it reduces what has to be raised at the local level.

In refusing to consider the issue, the Supreme Court effectively ratified last year's Court of Appeals ruling.

Appellate Judge Jon Thompson, writing for the court said nothing in the program amounts to the state providing funds for religious worship or instructions.

"The ESA students are pursuing a basic secondary education consistent with state standards,' Thompson wrote. "They are not pursing a course of religious study.'

And Thompson said the vouchers do not result in the state encouraging the preference of one religion over another, or religion over atheism.

The appellate court similarly found no violation of that constitutional provision barring aid to any parochial or private school. Thompson wrote that the program is designed to benefit the families, not the private or parochial schools.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Article comment by: Vouchers are for suckers.

" As Diane Ravitch points out, the education privatizers are using FUD to undermine public confidence in public education. The myth of the  failing public school is the newest version of  weapons of mass destruction andrunaway entitlement spending and domino theory. It's a masterful form of propaganda, inciting self-destructive sentiments among the public, and benefiting the business people who have a growing financial interest in our children."

Posted: Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Article comment by: M J

public money into private business pockets! (snark)
exactly how I feel about public money building sports stadiums!
p.s. I don't care about yer father...

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2014
Article comment by: It seems to me:

President Clinton and the Republican Congress could both have been trying to improve academic achievement in the U.S. There are studies that indicate alternative schools boost learning generally in a given area. The school competition theory was big during the Clinton years.

They could also have been trying to mollify parents protesting the lack of parental voice in public education and keep them from insisting on home schooling, which was also a big issue during the Clinton years. In many states, it was illegal unless a parent held a current teaching credential.

They could also have been trying to get people who could afford private schools to invest in state sponsored charters in poor, inner city neighborhoods. The state of inner city education was a big deal in the 1990's.

Anyway, that's what the Clinton Administration said it was working on: --and that's what the Bush Administration continued to work on.

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2014
Article comment by: @ Michael Keenan

That is more than interesting! I wonder why Republicans would write such a bill? NO I DON'T!!

I guess the moral of the story is, "If you don't like Wall St. stealing your money, DON'T vote Republican!!"

Posted: Saturday, March 29, 2014
Article comment by: Mary Heartman

@ Michael Keenan
That's interesting. I wonder why Bill Clinton would sign that.

But I also wonder why anyone with $500,000 to invest in American schools would want to buy immigration visas. Wouldn't their money go a lot further somewhere else?

Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Article comment by: Michael Keenan

Thanks to a little discussed law passed in 2000, at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools and other projects in underserved areas can take advantage of a very generous tax credit – as much as 39% -- to help offset their expenditure in such projects. In essence, that credit amounts to doubling the amount of money they have invested within just seven years. Moreover, they are allowed to combine that tax credit with job creation credits and other types of credit, as well collect interest payments on the money they are lending out – all of which can add up to far more than double in returns. This is, no doubt, why many big banks and equity funds are so invested in the expansion of charter schools. There is big money being made here -- because investment is nearly a sure thing.

And it’s not just U.S. investors who see the upside of investing in charters. Rich donors throughout the world are now sending money to fund our charter schools. Why? Because if they invest at least $500,000 to charters under a federal program called EB-5, they’re allowed to purchase immigration visas for themselves and family members -- yet another mechanism in place to ensure that the money keeps rolling in.

Posted: Saturday, March 22, 2014
Article comment by: 100% Education Voucher ...

for every child in the fine state of Arizona.

Two rights will be honored:

1) The right of ed/training for our children.

2) Prior-Right of parent to responsibly choose
the ed/training of their child.

Thanks and Good Luck,
Frank Henry

Posted: Saturday, March 22, 2014
Article comment by: Poor dad just rolled over

in his grave.


He sent four kids to private school from 1st grade through 1st year college with nary a tax deduction or any assistance from a tax voucher.

Back then, almost everyone understood the need for separation of church and state: thus, no taxes used for faith based education.

Encouraged by the hypocritical far-right, our Christian Taliban is just catching on.

IMO, this is little more than a repub ploy to privatize public education-- kill that damned big-brother government and push big-business!!!

As an "unintended consequence," the move will afford many in the shrinking white minority the refuges they think they need from a society they perceive as becoming ethnically polluted.

Given the obscene profits generated by Christian Sects selling Salvation, it seems to me the more intelligent 'ploy' might be to start taxing Church income.

With this school voucher move, Church income remains tax-exempt while simultaneously raking in tax dollars. .

Talk about double-dipping!


In their next move, I imagine the 'Christian' right will push for free Church listings on the Stock Exchange-- Christian only, of course.

Can you imagine ole Joel or Pat finally getting their deserved recognition as CEOs of major Churchorations?

Make that three times.

S'okay, dad, RIP.


Posted: Saturday, March 22, 2014
Article comment by: Wacka Wacka

More public money into private business pockets!

Remember kids!
Privatize Profits..
Socialize Losses!

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2014
Article comment by: Open the books

Wow. OK then. Private and parochial schools must cease the practice of blocking admissions with entrance exams, accept any student regardless of disability, require students to take standardized tests, and most importantly, open their budget books to state auditors. I'm not keen on handing taxpayer money to private schools - although I'm sure they are salivating at this point.

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