Arizona would become home to the most sweeping statewide school voucher program in the nation under legislation approved last week by the Senate.
The bill would provide tuition vouchers to any student who switched from a public school to a participating private one—secular or religious. The House had been scheduled to vote on the measure last week, but that action was postponed.
With Arizona lawmakers in the thick of state budget negotiations, the universal-voucher measure is among a menu of school choice plans backed by the Republican-controlled legislature despite long-standing opposition to publicly financed vouchers by the Democratic governor.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was elected in 2002, was not saying last week if she would veto the voucher bill should it be passed by the House. But an aide said she didn’t expect the governor would sign the bill.
“The governor firmly believes that state money needs to be spent on public schools,” said spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer.
When fully phased in over five years, the bill would provide tuition aid of up to $3,500 to students in grades K-8, and $4,500 to those in high school.
Observers on both sides of the voucher divide see the state’s various choice bills as central to the ongoing budgetary bargaining between the legislature and Gov. Napolitano, who is at odds with GOP leaders over her plan to expand full-day kindergarten in public schools.
“Some of the majority folks are trying to leverage some kind of private school funding in exchange for support for all-day kindergarten,” said Janice Palmer, the director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association.
The association lobbied hard against the voucher plan, which cleared the Senate on March 14 by a vote of 16-12. The school boards’ group is also fighting a bill that would allow tax credits for corporations that donate to private scholarship programs. That measure cleared the Senate last month, and was awaiting action last week on the House floor.
Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy organization, said in an interview last week that “one way or the other, I am very confident that we will see some sort of significant expansion of school choice in Arizona,” despite the governor’s opposition.
Part of a Trend
The action in Arizona comes amid an upsurge this year in proposals for school choice programs in state legislatures around the country. (“Legislatures Hit With Surge in School Choice Plans,” Feb. 23, 2005.)
Under the bill passed last week, all Arizona kindergartners or 1st graders could use the vouchers, regardless of whether they had attended a public or private school the year before, or any school at all. But students above 1st grade would have either to come from a public school or have gotten a voucher the previous year in order to qualify. Advocates of the measure say that curb on eligibility was designed to keep its cost down.
Regarding any potential quid pro quo involving full-day kindergarten and broader private school choice, Ms. L’Ecuyer said she couldn’t say “whether one would be used as a chit for the other.”
Gov. Napolitano is “fully committed” to expanding full-day kindergarten, her spokeswoman said. And given Arizona’s large number of publicly financed charter schools, she said the governor believes “there’s a wide range of choice already available.”
Ms. Palmer said the school boards’ association would challenge the voucher program in court, “if it gets that far.”
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s voucher program for Cleveland in 2002, school choice foes hope that restrictions on aid to religious schools in the Arizona Constitution would be interpreted by the courts as prohibiting vouchers.
Meanwhile, another voucher plan on the table would pay for kindergartners to attend full-day programs in private schools. That bill, which is awaiting action on the House floor, is a direct counterpoint to the governor’s plan to expand a full-day-kindergarten initiative that the state launched this school year in high-poverty schools.
A bill that would expand Arizona’s 8-year-old program of state income-tax credits for individuals who donate to private scholarship organizations has cleared both chambers. Currently, married couples can earn credits for up to $625 per year, while that limit is $500 for single tax filers. The bill would lift the limit for couples to $1,000 to eliminate what advocates call a “marriage penalty.”