PHOENIX - Thousands of students in poorly performing public schools could soon get what amounts to a voucher from the state to go elsewhere - or even get educated at home - in a move that could take hundreds of millions of dollars a year out of the public school system.
State education officials are taking applications through Wednesday for the newly expanded "empowerment scholarship accounts," which provide parents with a $3,500 bank card, an amount equal to 90 percent of what the state would otherwise pay the school.
The funds can be used to pay tuition and fees at private or parochial schools. But parents also can buy books to home-school their children or hire tutors, as long as the youngster is not enrolled in a public school.
The idea is not new. Lawmakers gave initial approval to a limited program in 2011 designed to help students with disabilities, which resulted in about 150 vouchers.
Last year, legislators expanded the program to entitle any student in a school rated D or F, or nearly 10 percent of the more than 2,000 traditional public and charter schools in the state.
State education officials estimate there are about 65,000 students in traditional public schools and another 12,000 in charter schools that are graded D. No schools are currently rated F. Another 10,000 children of active-duty military are also now eligible.
And each student getting one of these scholarships eventually means less state funding for the school from which he or she came.
"It gives another option to those parents to take their children out of a D and F school," said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale. "Obviously, the school is not doing a very good job of teaching them."
While the program means less money for the schools students leave, Lesko said, she's more concerned about the student's education, not the school itself.
Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill said program backers are ignoring the practical impact on a school that might lose 20 or 30 students scattered throughout all the different grades.
"You don't get rid of a teacher," he said. "Those are spread throughout the entire population. You don't reduce the lighting in a building by 20 students' worth."
TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone said he doesn't know what kind of impact the voucher program might have, but he doesn't expect a mass exodus of students from the district.
"If parents really want to leave for a private school, this will help offset the cost, but I don't believe it will be the impetus," Pedicone said.
The more pressing concern for the Tucson Unified School District, which has consistently lost more than 1,000 students a year for several years, is working to reduce the number of D-rated schools - currently there are 18 - and providing a quality education in spite of ongoing state budget cuts, Pedicone said.
In the past, TUSD has been required to notify parents of poorly performing schools, giving them the opportunity to move their children to higher performing schools, but very few chose to do so, said TUSD Accountability and Research Director David Scott.
For schools, the financial hit is a year away.
Stacey Morley, director of policy development and government affairs for the Department of Education, said schools get state aid based on the prior year's enrollment.
Morrill said the answer to help failing schools is better state funding.
But state school Superintendent John Huppenthal said that's based on a flawed assumption.
"What we've seen nationwide in 30 years of failing schools is nothing works," he said, noting that even with special intervention efforts, three-fourths of these failing schools are worse off five years later.
"Now we have to try the good-old American Way: Give parents a choice," Huppenthal said.
Rather than leading to schools shutting down, Huppenthal said, losing students might result in putting school officials "into an environment where they have to think differently every single day" to find new ways of providing an education and keeping parents happy.
"It might be painful for a year or two," he said, but schools and students will be better off once they adjust.
But Morrill believes that "this is an agenda to defund public schools, privatize the system," a little bit at a time.
Lesko said she foresees a time when all students will be able to get these "empowerment scholarships."
"My plan would be to make as many options as possible to as many students and parents as possible," she said. And the letter grade of the individual school is not the sole factor to consider.
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Star reporter Alexis Huicochea contributed to this story