Arizona No. 1 in voucher programs, 2/11/09

posted Dec 13, 2011, 10:18 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Jan 3, 2012, 3:02 AM ]


Report: Arizona No. 1 in voucher programs

Michelle Reese | Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 5:30 pm

Arizona programs that provide scholarships or vouchers for students to attend private schools benefited 29,539 students last school year.

The news came this week while leaders on both sides of the voucher debate await a decision from the Arizona Supreme Court on the constitutionality of one voucher program.

In the annual report released Tuesday by the Alliance for School Choice, Arizona ranked No. 1 in the number of programs available to students that allow them to receive funds to attend a private school.

Compared to the nine other states (and the District of Columbia) that offer private school choice tuition programs, Arizona ranks third in the number of students who receive funds, with Pennsylvania leading with 43,764 students and Florida not far behind with 41,843 students benefiting.

There are several programs available to families in Arizona, including individual and corporate tax credits dispersed to students through tuition organizations, and voucher programs from the state that provide funds for foster children and students with disabilities to attend private schools.

It is that last piece that has been debated among parents, school groups and leaders, leading to the Supreme Court hearing in December.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is a proponent of the vouchers. His argument is that the state already pays money to some private schools when public school district officials deem it a better fit for a child.

But opponents say the voucher program is taking away resources from public schools.

A trial court agreed with the backers of the program, but an appellate court ruled it unconstitutional. The original lawsuit was filed nearly two years ago.

Last year, lawmakers decided not to fund the program for the current school year, but the state Department of Education found the money to keep it going.

"We've for a number of years been first in the country for parental choice," Horne said. "I just believe that the more parental choice you have, the more schools compete to do well academically so parents will want to send their children there. It's just like any part of life, when people have competition they do better."

But Chris Thomas, legal representative for the Arizona School Boards Association - which filed the lawsuit - said the problem with the vouchers is state law does not allow state money to pay for religious education.

"This is the first time in Arizona we've tried that," Thomas said of the voucher program that began in 2006. "We have some pretty clear provisions in our law that there can be no public money supporting religious instruction. There can be no direct or indirect aid for religious instruction in the state."

There are 225 special-needs and foster children statewide who received vouchers last year to attend private schools.