Arizona governor signs small school voucher expansion bill

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PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has signed legislation that would slightly increase the reach of the state's current school voucher program and revamp how it is administered.

The proposal was billed as a permanent fix to an issue that cropped up last year when the new state schools chief discovered that a handful of children on the Navajo Nation were illegally using vouchers to attend a private school in New Mexico.

But Democrats said this year's measure is far more broad than a temporary fix passed last year. That proposal just allowed seven children attending the Hilltop Christian School to continue going there this school year.

Republican backers of the bill said it merely made permanent last year's action.

But the new law allows any child living on a reservation to attend a private school within 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of the Arizona border using state funds. That means more students could attend the Hilltop Christian School in Tse Bonito, New Mexico, across the border from Window Rock.

And there's no prohibition on other schools opening along the border to use Arizona vouchers.

Ducey, a Republican, signed the bill Friday without comment.

The bill also removes some oversight from the Department of Education, now run by a Democrat, and sets up a dedicated call center for parents in the program. It also sets up dedicated funding for administration and bars parents from moving voucher money to college savings accounts.

Arizona's school vouchers, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, allow parents to use state funds to send their children to private schools or pay for other education costs.

The program only applied to students with disabilities when it began in 2011 but has been greatly expanded over the years to cover many others. It currently is capped at about 30,000 students, although only about 8,200 students are now enrolled. The current cost is about $110 million a year.

Parents get 90% of the state funds that normally go to their local public school to use for private school tuition and other education costs. Disabled students can receive up to $40,000 for specialized therapy.

A 2017 law repealed by voters the following year would have allowed all 1.1 million Arizona schoolchildren to apply for private school vouchers, but put a cap on enrollment. The repeal didn't block future expansions.

A new citizen's initiative being circulated by voucher opponents Save Our Schools Arizona would limit the program to 1% of the state's school population per year, or about 11,000 students. It will be on the November ballot if enough signatures are collected.


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