Arizona Business Group Joins Opponents Of School Voucher Expansion

Published: Thursday, February 25, 2016 - 6:06pm
Updated: Friday, February 26, 2016 - 10:28am
(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Arizona Business and Education Coalition and Children's Action Alliance hold a news conference to speak out against expanding the state's school voucher program.

A bill that passed the Arizona Senate this week would allow more students to use public tax dollars to attend private schools.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program, often referred to as ESAs or vouchers, was started as a way to help students with special needs, but it keeps expanding. That’s a problem for some people.

“The taxpayer is essentially left with what I describe as a hot mess," said Dick Foreman, president and CEO of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition.

On Thursday, Foreman stood on the Capitol lawn alongside members of the Children’s Action Alliance to speak out against the expansion of school vouchers. Foreman said the business community has been a longtime supporter of charter schools and open enrollment, but they worry that more vouchers could lead to students fleeing public schools, leaving behind buildings that must still be maintained. 

"Go to any neighborhood that has closed a school, see what happens to property values; see what happens to the taxpayer investment," he said. "We cajole local taxpayers to support their schools. We cannot take away the base funding of those schools and leave them straddling a huge cost exposure to maintain basically an empty building."

Just before voting in favor of expanding vouchers, State Senator Debbie Lesko (R-District 21) said the program saves taxpayers money because the average voucher for a traditional student is approximately $5,000 compared with approximately $9,000 spent per student in a public school district.

She also pointed out that SB1279 caps the number of new ESAs at 0.5 percent of total public school enrollment through 2019, or about 5,500 new students annually.

“This talk of decimation and, you know, gonna ruin the public school system, is absolutely ridiculous," she said. 

A companion bill must still make it through the House before it can be sent to the governor.

The ESA program started in 2011 to provide options for students with special needs. It has grown to include children whose parents are in the military, siblings, foster children, students in failing schools and students who live on Native American reservations.

During the news conference, Children's Action Alliance President and CEO Dana Wolfe Nairmark also released the findings of a report critical of Arizona school tax credits and called on lawmakers to reform the system.

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