Published Online: July 11, 2006
Published in Print: July 12, 2006, as Ariz. Adds Foster-Care Voucher to School Choice Package

Ariz. Adds Foster-Care Voucher to School Choice Package

School choice advocates are calling it one of their biggest state victories yet.

Arizona lawmakers ended their 2006 session by creating a first-of-its kind voucher program for children in foster care and offering new vouchers to children with special needs–two measures signed by Gov. Janet Napolitano.

They also more than doubled the size of a business-financed private school scholarship program they had created just months before, though the Democratic governor allowed that legislation to become law without her signature.

The measures grew out of a budget-year compromise between the Republican-dominated legislature, which wanted more school choice options for families, and Gov. Janet Napolitano, who wanted more money to implement full-day kindergarten and boost teacher salaries.

“This doesn’t mean she likes vouchers now,” said Ms. Napolitano’s communications director, Jeanine L’Ecuyer. “But she came to a compromise. There were a bunch of legislators that had to vote for full-day kindergarten that didn’t like that idea either.”

The new laws add to the array of choices for Arizona’s more than 1 million public school students, who already can attend one of about 500 charter schools, or any public school through open enrollment.

When the legislature wrapped up last month, Gov. Napolitano got an additional $160 million for full-day kindergarten and $100 million to increase teacher pay.

But she had to accept two voucher programs that will use $5 million a year in state money to provide private school scholarships to children with special needs and those who are in foster care. She also had to accept a new corporate tax credit, which she vetoed once before, that will eventually provide nearly $21 million in tax rebates for companies that donate to programs offering private school scholarships.

Those programs represent lost revenue to the state, say opponents, who contend that the compromise wasn’t worth it.

Allowing public money to pay for private school vouchers “breaches an important core value we have,” said John H. Wright, a former elementary school teacher who is now the president of the 33,000-member Arizona Education Association. “This sets a dangerous precedent.”

Danger or Turning Point?

Public school teachers see danger in the new policies, but school choice proponents see a turning point.

“We have reached the tipping point in Arizona where school choice doesn’t threaten people,” said Clint Bolick, the president of the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Phoenix. “It’s very difficult to demonize it anymore.”

Expanding School Choice

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, accepted three school choice programs as part of a budget deal in the 2006 legislative session.

Gov. Janet Napolitano

Corporate Tax Credits: Companies can claim dollar-for-dollar credits to reduce their state taxes by contributing to school tuition organizations, which in turn will award private school scholarships to students. The program is capped at $10 million a year, but will grow by 20 percent a year until the cap reaches nearly $21 million. The maximum amount for K-8 scholarships in the coming school year is $4,200 and rises to $5,500 for grades 9-12.

Children With Disabilities: Special education children will be able to apply for taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend a private school. Legislators set aside $2.5 million a year. The amount of each voucher will depend on the needs of the child.

Children in Foster Care: The first of its kind in the country, this program will provide $2.5 million in vouchers for foster-care children to attend private schools. State officials estimate the average voucher will be worth $3,000 to $4,000.

The voucher program for foster-care children, which will provide $2.5 million in private school scholarships a year, is the first of its kind in the nation and one that legislators and school choice supporters say could allow children who move from home to home to stay in the same school.

But state children’s advocates, who say the voucher law doesn’t address underlying challenges in foster care, didn’t seek such a bill.

“This is a voucher bill, not a foster- care bill,” said Dana W. Naimark , the director of special projects for the Phoenix-based Children’s Action Alliance. “Will this allow a few children to go to an excellent school? Yeah. Will it make an overall difference in the staility of foster-care children? I don’t see that happening.”

But as states work to address underlying issues in foster care, programs like this one could be helpful, said Sue Badeau, the deputy director of the Washington-based Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. “Anything we can do to keep the rest of their lives stable is incredibly important,” she said.

As of September 2005, Arizona had 9,906 children in foster care, according to the state’s department of economic security. If the average voucher is worth $4,000, 625 students could be served.

‘Not a Hard Sell’

The voucher program for children with disabilities will reach an even smaller percentage of Arizona’s children. The state has 123,017 students in special education, according to the Arizona Department of Education. The program is also capped at $2.5 million a year, and there’s no telling how far that money will go because vouchers could reach $25,000 per student, depending on the disability and the services needed.

“If 10 students can benefit from this, then we’ll be successful,” said Rep. Laura Knaperek, the Republican who sponsored the bill. “This is just another option for kids.”

Three other states offer children with disabilities taxpayer-funded vouchers: Florida, Ohio, and Utah. Lawmakers and school choice advocates hope they can reach even more students—perhaps up to 7,000—with the new corporate-tax-credit program.

The program works by providing companies with a dollar-for-dollar credit off their state taxes for money they donate to school tuition organizations, which in turn use the money to finance private school scholarships for students.

The legislature approved the program in March with a $5 million cap, but expanded the cap three months later to $10 million. The ceiling will increase 20 percent a year, until it reaches nearly $21 million.

It’s not clear how popular the corporate tax credits will be in Arizona, which offers a similar incentive to individual donors. The earlier program, enacted in 1997, brought in $42.2 million in individual donations in 2005—an increase of 32.4 percent over 2004, according to the state department of revenue. That translated into 22,522 scholarships, which were worth $30.9 million last year.

“Either companies can give their money to the state of Arizona, or to scholarships for disadvantaged children,” said Mr. Bolick, the school choice advocate. “It’s not a hard sell.”

Vol. 25, Issue 42, Pages 22,26

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