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Arizona expansion of school vouchers clears hurdle but caught up in GOP infighting

The expansion aimed at low-income students would be the largest in state history. Opponents say the "loophole" would allow higher-income students to qualify.

PHOENIX — The largest school voucher expansion in Arizona history has cleared one hurdle at the state Capitol, but now it's bogged down by infighting among Republicans who supported it. 

The voucher expansion is being presented as a civil rights issue for low-income families. 

"Folks, we're tired of waiting," Republican State Sen. Paul Boyer, the expansion's sponsor, said at a committee hearing introducing the bill.

Boyer was preceded by video of the civil rights clashes of the 1960s.

"Students, especially minority students in high poverty areas, have been hit the hardest," Boyer said, also tying the legislation to students' hardships during the pandemic.

Boyer's goal: Provide access to a private school education for low-income students in schools that receive federal Title I funding and free or reduced-price lunches. The tuition money would come from state tax dollars funneled to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

The bill would also allow students who live within a Title I school's boundaries - not just students who receive the assistance - to take advantage of an ESA.

"It's really a scheme and opportunity for parents who already have the means to subsidize their students' private education," said Devin Del Palacio, school board president at the Tolleson Union High School District, where virtually every student gets Title I services.

"That's the loophole which is probably going to get exploited," said Del Palacio, who is also chairman of the National School Boards Association Black Council.

Here's what you need to know about the proposed expansion:

- Arizona’s 10-year-old Empowerment Scholarship Accounts hand out taxpayer dollars to send students to private or parochial schools.

- Families get about $7,000 per student, more for special needs children.

- The money might not cover the overall cost of a private or parochial school education. School tuition starts at about $5,000 a year and escalates into the high teens and more than $20,000 a year at the most exclusive schools.

- Under current law, about 250,000 Arizona students are eligible for vouchers, but only 9,000 participate in the program, according to the Arizona Department of Education. 

- Under the Boyer bill, total eligibility would soar to 836,000 students, 70% of the roughly 1.2 million students in Arizona public and charter schools, according to a new report by the Legislature’s independent finance analysts.

According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee

- Almost 90% of the currently eligible students could apply under the new proposed guidelines.

- That means the net number of newly eligible students would be 580,000.

The JLBC report notes that a major constraint on the expansion would be private and parochial schools’ limited ability to absorb new students. The proposed ESA expansion would result in a net 2,284 students a year switching from public to private schools, the report says. 

In a statewide vote three years ago, Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a voucher expansion that would have made all students eligible for ESAs.

But the new bill is in limbo after being passed by the full Senate earlier this week. 

Infighting among Republicans is preventing the bill from getting a vote in the full House.

State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and several other Republicans want to claw the bill back from the House for a revote.

They're apparently retaliating against Boyer for his "no" vote that killed a Ugenti-Rita elections bill. 

There's also lingering ill will from Boyer's failure last week to support the Senate's contempt resolution against the Maricopa County Board.

The full House would have to vote to return the voucher bill to the Senate. According to House spokesman Andrew Wilder, a vote hasn't been scheduled.

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