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Published in Print: April 6, 2005, as Ariz. Battle Over Choice Heats Up as Republicans Revise Voucher Strategy

Ariz. Battle Over Choice Heats Up as Republicans Revise Voucher Strategy

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Arizona’s legislature is mulling a compromise voucher plan that would provide publicly financed aid for tuition at private schools to students who failed state assessments.

The plan, one of several school choice proposals before the legislature, would give the vouchers to families of students who failed to perform at grade level on the assessments, who had disabilities, or who were English-language learners. The House K-12 education committee voted 6-3 last week to approve the measure.

The House has not moved forward, however, with another, much broader bill that the Senate passed earlier in March. The Senate bill, authorizing vouchers of between $3,500 and $4,500 to any Arizona students who switched from public to private schools, would create the most sweeping voucher program in the country. As with the compromise plan, the tuition aid could be used at both religious and secular schools. ("Ariz. Senate Sends Sweeping Voucher Bill to House," March 23, 2005.)

Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who has steadfastly opposed vouchers, may be the insurmountable obstacle for any such measure if Republicans are unable to strike a deal with her.

Governor Is Dismayed

Last week, she vetoed another measure favored by advocates of private school choice: a provision to expand the state’s tuition tax credits for individual taxpayers to corporations. The plan, which was part of a broad budget package, would have allowed corporations to contribute up to $10,000 to the state’s scholarship fund, which allows private, nonprofit groups to give scholarships to secular and religious private schools.

Gov. Napolitano did not specifically mention the tax credits in her letter explaining the veto, but she expressed dismay that the budget did not include funding for her proposals to expand full-day kindergarten, school construction, and certain noneducation programs.

“As has become all too familiar, the legislature’s budget is balanced on the backs of Arizona children,” she wrote.

The governor’s office does not comment on legislation before it reaches the governor’s desk, because ongoing negotiations could result in a number of changes to the bills, said Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for Ms. Napolitano, when asked about the new voucher plan. In general, the governor “has never been a supporter of school vouchers,” Ms. Urias said.

But some voucher supporters say the Republican-led legislature could strike a deal with the governor to get her to sign on to the tax credits, and perhaps a voucher plan, if they agreed to finance her proposals for kindergarten and other school initiatives.

Rep. Mark Anderson, the Republican who chairs the House K-12 education committee, said his chamber had so far not voted on the Senate’s full-blown voucher proposal because leaders have struggled to find votes for that bill, but that he was optimistic that the House version could be a good compromise for school choice advocates and Gov. Napolitano.

“We’re still trying to find a combination of choice options,” Mr. Anderson said in an interview last week. His committee last week passed a bill that included funding for full-day kindergarten and the corporate tax credit, in the hope of winning the governor’s signature.

Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a national group based in Phoenix that promotes vouchers and other forms of school choice, said he was hopeful that the governor and the legislature could reach a compromise allowing the state to go forward with both a voucher program and the corporate tax credits.

“We’re hoping a compromise can be reached to let a thousand flowers bloom, or at least two,” Mr. Bolick said.

He added that the legislature’s discussions of the numerous proposals was a sign of the growing momentum of the national school choice movement. ("Legislatures Hit With Surge in School Choice Plans," Feb. 23, 2005.) “Arizona has been a leader on the tax-credit side … and now, Arizona is poised to do that on the voucher front.”

Court Ruling

In the meantime, a federal judge, for the second time, upheld an existing state law that provides income-tax credits to individuals who donate money to the state’s scholarship fund that helps pay for private school tuition. The ruling rejected a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that had argued the 1997 law allowed public funds to go to religious institutions in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Arizona’s tax-credit program gives a dollar-for-dollar credit of up to $500 for individuals, and up to $625 for married couples, who make donations to school tuition accounts.

The legislature is also considering a change in that law that would end the so-called “marriage penalty” and allow married couples to contribute up to $1,000 to the accounts.

Vol. 24, Issue 30, Page 20

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