PHOENIX — Up to 120,000 youths living in low-income neighborhoods could soon qualify for taxpayer-funded tuition to private and parochial schools.
On a voice vote Wednesday the Senate agreed to expand an existing voucherlike program for students with special needs or in failing schools. About 60,000 now qualify for the funds, although actual enrollment is less than 800.
SB 1236 would open the program to all children living in ZIP codes where the average household income is below 185 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four — currently $44,122 a year.
The measure, which still needs a final roll-call vote, does not require individual families to meet that income test. But rather, Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, said those who earn much more would qualify as long as the average income of their neighbors, as defined by postal ZIP codes, is below that figure.
The original measure would have included all children who meet economic eligibility requirements for free or reduced-price lunch programs, which is also capped off at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But Yee said officials at the Department of Education objected because that would have required them to get income data from individual families — data that now is not shared with the state.
Yee said the eligible areas are largely concentrated in the southern parts of Tucson and Phoenix but added there are other areas scattered throughout the state.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who is sponsoring an identical measure in the House, said far more children would have qualified using the individual test. Lesko, whose version is set for a House vote today, said she believes the new scaled-back version will prove more politically acceptable.
But that wasn’t evident in Wednesday’s Senate debate.
Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Phoenix, said she doesn’t believes this measure is the last step in voucher expansion.
“I believe the goal is to eventually expand the program to the state’s more than 1 million public and charter-school children,” she said. Cajero Bedford said the result will be diverting “desperately needed money” from public schools.
Yee said that can’t happen, at least not under current laws. She pointed out that the program limits year-over-year increases in vouchers to one-half of 1 percent of students in public schools, a figure she put at about 5,400.
But that annual cap on what are called “empowerment scholarship accounts” expires in 2020, or lawmakers could repeal it before then.
Lesko has made no secret she wants a much larger program, available to far more children.
Earlier this year she tried unsuccessfully to open the voucher program to about 850,000 of the 1.1 million youngsters now in public schools, with annual income limit increases that eventually would have made every student in the state eligible.
Democrats are not the only foes. Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she will vote against the measure and any other expansion of the program.
“They were originally marketed as a savings to the state,” she said, with the idea that the vouchers equal 90 percent of what the state would otherwise pay for a student to attend public schools. But she said that’s not the case.
Part of the problem is that 90 percent figure has been computed on what the state pays to send children to charter schools, which is more than the aid provided to traditional public schools.
Legislative budget staffers put the voucher aid at $5,400 a year — about $1,000 more than what the state now pays in aid to regular public schools.
“There actually are going to be additional costs to the general fund to do this program,” Carter said. “That’s not the way the program was originally designed.”
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, questioned opening the program to anyone in a geographic area with no requirement that parents be needy to qualify.
He said that opens the treasury to families who can more than afford to send their youngsters to private schools.
But Yee noted that the program is available only to students who are switching from public schools. Students already in private and parochial schools are ineligible for the vouchers.
There is an exception, though, for youngsters just starting kindergarten — if they live in the affected ZIP code.