The Arizona House has wisely put the brakes on a push to give taxpayer money to private schools through tuition vouchers worth about $5,400 per child.
The legislation, approved by the state Senate, would give vouchers worth about $5,400 to families living in ZIP codes where the average income is less than $44,000, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of four.
The vote Thursday was 31-27 to kill the proposal, but it could be revived this week.
Setting aside the matter of diverting taxpayers’ money to pay private, sometimes religious, school tuition, the fuzzy numbers surrounding the discussion are worrisome.
The legislation, HB 2291, would build on Arizona’s existing voucher program, which covers students in foster care, kids of active-duty military members, children with disabilities and students who attend schools rated D or F by the state.
Estimates based on those existing categories of eligibility range from 60,000 to 150,000 kids. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would add eligibility for 112,000 more.
That’s a lot of money to take out of the public school system and put into private schools — assuming they had the capacity and willingness to take them.
But Lesko said Arizona law caps the number of new vouchers each year to about 5,400 students, according to a report from Capitol Media Services. This limitation raises more questions.
Siphoning money from public schools, which are already underfunded, doesn’t make sense, said Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson.
“Parental choice starts with well-funded and well-functioning public schools,” Orr said. Talking about vouchers should happen “once we fix our funding formulas, once we make our public school system one of the best in the nation.”
As Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, pointed out, Arizona has a plethora of school choice. within its public school systemStudents can go to schools outside their neighborhood or district.
What’s more, many Arizona parents who want to send their children to private school can already receive tuition scholarships, funded by tax credit donations.
Also overlooked in the push for vouchers as the way to empower parents in their child’s education, Carter said, is our state’s extensive charter school network. Thousands of Arizona kids attend charters, which are taxpayer-funded schools that can be run by private entities and don’t have to follow all the regulations of a traditional school.
Added to that is the basic tenet of what you get for your money: With private schools, there is no way to know.
Public traditional and charter school students must take state standardized tests and report their data. Schools are evaluated by the Arizona Department of Education and given a public letter grade.
While far from perfect — and many public schools have a long way to go – the parents and community members, have a window into the schools. We can evaluate our neighborhood schools and decide where to send our kids.
Private schools don’t have to give the same standardized tests and they don’t have to make their students’ performance public. Arizona would be spending taxpayer money on a large scale without any way to assess the results. That’s bad public policy.
Additionally, private schools can pick and choose which students to admit — something that public schools can’t do.
These differences are important, because they speak to fairness, transparency and wise use of public dollars. Our money — taxpayer money — should support only schools that are open and accountable to all.