PHOENIX - A new law signed this week by Gov. Jan Brewer could give an estimated 100,000 children in Arizona schools a check from the state to go to a private or parochial school next year instead.
The measure vastly expands an existing voucher program - dubbed "empowerment accounts" - that provides additional education opportunities for students with special needs. The program had about 150 participants this year - its first - and cost $1.5 million.
Under the new law, any student whose school is rated a D or worse on academic achievement qualifies for a voucher, good for 90 percent of the basic aid the state gives to public schools for each student. At last count, 183 of the 1,502 schools that have been given letter grades were rated D; no school is yet rated F.
State education officials think there are 90,000 students in D schools. The new law also says children of active-duty military personnel can get the vouchers, putting the number of eligible students at more than 100,000.
The amount of state aid per student varies by district and grade, but it can run in the $3,500- to $4,000-a-year range.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, who championed the expansion, said it's not fair to students trapped in their neighborhood schools.
"We're failing our children," Lesko said. The vouchers will give parents cash to find a private alternative, she said.
Lesko acknowledged the voucher amount may not be enough to cover the cost of a private school.
For example, First Baptist Christian Academy in Sierra Vista charges $4,640 a year. At Desert Christian School in Tucson, tuition is $6,030 for elementary school and $8,640 for high schoolers.
And it costs $9,500 a year for someone in kindergarten through fifth grade to attend Green Fields Country Day School. The price there rises to $13,750 for grades six through eight and $14,200 for high schoolers.
Lesko sidestepped the question of whether the vouchers will help only parents who can afford to pay the balance out of pocket, essentially leaving failing schools with the poorest of the poor.
"That's certainly not my goal," she said. "My goal is to make sure that all students, no matter what level they're at, have choices."
Lesko said, though, that she has no problem with failing schools getting less money because of fewer students. She said paying schools that fail to educate is "like a homeowner continuing to pay a contractor who is doing a bad job."
Sidney Hay, lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, a nationwide group that promotes school choice, agreed: "Bad schools need to close."
Cara Rene, Tucson Unified School District spokeswoman, called the possibility of losing students and funding "troubling."
She said the district, which has 28 D-rated schools serving 15,000 students, is taking steps to improve achievement, like intervention programs to help low-achieving students in reading and math, as well as teacher training.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said Brewer supports school choice.
"She is not going to accept trapping families and trapping students in poor schools that they cannot escape," he said.
Acknowledging the vouchers may not cover private and parochial school tuitions, Benson said, "It's not a cure-all for everyone. It's not going to allow every student in every financial circumstance to attend every private school that they wish."
Hay said she's not worried the poorest students will be left out.
"I guarantee you there will be new private schools opening up in those areas," she said. "This will have a downward pressure on the tuition rate, because you have now established a big, new market.
"The model of the past, where you had to have a big building and lots of teachers and lots of facility, that's changing because of technology."
But Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said what's missing is the oversight that exists over traditional public schools that are spending tax dollars. He said there is no evidence voucher programs improve academic performance because there's no accountability for where the money goes or on student performance because private schools are exempt from the requirement to test students annually and make the results public.
The voucher expansion comes even as foes of the existing program are challenging its legality in court. The lawsuit by the Arizona Education Association claims vouchers violate a constitutional provision barring state aid to private and parochial schools.
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Maria del Mar Verdin refused earlier this year to block the program while the case makes its way through the court.
By the numbers
Key figures regarding the expanded voucher program:
Number of Arizona schools given letter grades
Number of schools in the state that earned a D grade
Number of students estimated to be in D-rated schools
Top range in amount of state aid per student given in program
'D' schools in Pima
There are 38 D-rated schools in Pima County. There are no F-rated schools.
Amphitheater Unified School District: 1
• Amphitheater High School
Sunnyside Unified School District: 5
• Drexel Elementary School
• Los Ranchitos Elementary School
• Apollo Middle School
• Sierra Middle School
• Desert View High School
Tucson Unified School District: 28
• Cragin Elementary School
• Davis Bilingual Magnet School
• Dietz Elementary School
• Erickson Elementary School
• Fort Lowell Elementary School
• Hudlow Elementary School
• Manzo Elementary School
• Ochoa Elementary School
• Oyama Elementary School
• Robison Elementary School
• Steele Elementary School
• Warren Elementary School
• Alice Vail Middle School
• Carson Middle School
• Hohokam Middle School
• Mansfeld Middle School
• Maxwell Middle School
• Naylor Middle School
• Pistor Middle School
• Safford Magnet Middle School
• Townsend Middle School
• Utterback Middle School
• Valencia Middle School
• Wakefield Middle School
• Catalina High Magnet School
• Cholla High Magnet School
• Howenstine High School
• Santa Rita High School
Ajo Unified School District: 1
• Ajo Elementary School
Indian Oasis-Baboquivari Unified School District: 3
• Indian Oasis Primary School
• Baboquivari Middle School
• Baboquivari High School
Source: Arizona Department of Education
"She (Gov. Brewer) is not going to accept trapping families and trapping students in poor schools that they cannot escape."
Matthew Benson, gubernatorial press aide, speaking on Brewer's support of school choice
Alexis Huicochea of the Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.