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Grassroots Lobbying Kills Ariz. Voucher Proposals

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Statehouse insiders in Arizona expected a fierce fight over tuition vouchers for private school students when the legislative session opened in January, and they got it--nine times over.

Proposals to create state subsidies for private school students popped up like spring flowers at every turn in the lawmakers' work.

But when the session was gaveled1st sp in amher to a close this month, none had blossomed into law.

The defeats surprised some in the state who pointed to last fall's election of a pro-voucher state schools superintendent as a sure sign that lawmakers would pass at least a pilot voucher program. (See Education Week, 12/14/94.)

But those predictions underestimated the grassroots lobbying strength of the Arizona Education Association and the other school groups that opposed all the voucher proposals, according to Dan Schottel, the chairman of the House education committee and a sponsor of one of the voucher bills.

"Anytime it looked like someone might be swayed to come over to my side," Representative Schottel said, "they would get swamped by mail and phone calls from their districts," he said.

Voucher's Nine Lives?

Forecasts for a voucher win may also have been spoiled by the many variations of vouchers offered by lawmakers. Some school lobbyists calculated that vouchers were included in nine pieces of legislation; voucher supporters said it was only six.

Regardless, the effect was to splinter the Republicans and deprive voucher proponents of the critical mass of votes needed to push any of the proposals, said Rob Melnick, the director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

Vouchers "came in every form you can think of, and then in some that you couldn't even imagine," he said. "But Republicans never managed to rally around one plan."

Three political heavyweights introduced bills at the start of the session. Republican Gov. Fife Symington proposed a pilot program that would have given a maximum voucher of $1,500 to 2,000 students from low-income families.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate education committee, John Huppenthal, pushed a bill that would have phased in a statewide program over the next 10 years, subsidizing any student's private school tuition with about $2,500 in the last year.

Also, Mr. Schottel introduced a bill calling for a $3,500 voucher to be awarded to 2 percent of the state's students. If school districts agreed to participate in the program, they would have received $1,000 of that voucher.

Although each bill had its supporters, none cleared committee and reached either the House or Senate floor for a vote.

'Voucher Lite'

By early this month, voucher proponents sounded beaten. "It's already died three times in the legislature, and I don't think it has a shot," Lisa Graham, the new state schools superintendent, said at the time.

But Ms. Graham and others never gave up hope, and their optimism was rewarded when the voucher issue resurfaced in debate over an education-mandate-relief bill. Both the House and Senate had passed the bill, but an eleventh-hour amendment was raised in the conference committee that authorized state grants to parents who wanted to enroll troubled students in private alternative schools.

While the bill's backers said it was not a true voucher program, others dubbed it "voucher lite" and described it as a last-gasp effort by Republicans.

"They were just trying to get something passed to put points on the board and build from there," Mr. Melnick said.

The amendment eventually was pulled when Republican leaders reportedly did a head count and discovered that--once again--they lacked the votes to win.

C. Diane Bishop, a former state schools superintendent who is now the Governor's education adviser, said that despite Republican gains in last fall's election, enough moderate G.O.P. members remain who oppose vouchers that a win may require even more legislative turnover. "The folks who were against us in the past are still there," she said.

Some observers speculated that the issue would be revived this year, either in an expected special school-funding legislative session or a ballot initiative.

The defeat in Arizona marks voucher proponents' first major setback this year. Voucher legislation remains viable in Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform.

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