Gov. Jan Brewer could convene a special legislative session this coming week to find ways to keep students who lost their state-funded vouchers in private schools.
The plan, being crafted with the help of Rep. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, would create a new tax credit for Arizonans who give money to help these children and others like them. And this new credit, like a similar one for youngsters in private and parochial schools, would cost the donors nothing: They would get back what they gave in dollar-for-dollar state income tax credits.
That appears to be on more sound legal footing than the vouchers, which the Arizona Supreme Court found in March violated a constitutional ban on state aid to private and parochial schools. By contrast, the high court has upheld the legality of tax credits.
Brewer, a proponent of both vouchers and credits, is interested in finding a new way to help the parents of these students pay to educate them outside the public school system. Paul Senseman, her press aide, said Friday she is weighing a special session as early as this coming week.
Lawmakers already are in regular session. But anything they would enact now likely could not take effect until 90 days after the session ends, making any new program effective too late for the upcoming school year.
With a concurrent special session now solely on that issue, that 90-day clock would begin running from the time the bill is approved, making it law in August.
But Yarbrough's involvement in the plan could prove to be a political hurdle: He is executive director of - and paid by - the largest organization in the state that already provides similar tax credits.
The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization took in more than $11 million in donations in 2007, the most recent figures available. And state law allows the managers of these organizations to keep up to 10 percent for their own expenses.
Yarbrough said he will not sponsor the bill, though he is helping to craft it. And he said his organization is unlikely to get involved in the new program.
The 2006 law provided $2.5 million in vouchers to the parents of former foster children who have been adopted. Another $2.5 million was set aside for a similar programs for disabled youngsters.
The "vouchers" are checks, drawn on the state treasury but made payable to the parents who then must endorse them over to the private or parochial school for tuition and fees.
In March, however, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled the vouchers unconstitutional. The justices allowed the 473 children in the two programs to complete this school year but cut off state funding beyond.
But both Brewer and Yarbrough noted that the justices, in a prior decision, upheld the legality of dollar-for-dollar state income tax credits for those who give money to help students attend private and parochial schools.
The difference is the way the funds are handled: Vouchers involve money from the state treasury; credits are dollars that reduce what people send to the state in taxes in the first place.
Yarbrough said the credits would be designed to limit the financial loss to the state.
First, he said the program would be available to students with disabilities or from foster homes who need special attention. Second, the financial aid paid from donations on behalf of any student could be no more than 90 percent of what the state now pays in aid to public schools.
Finally, Yarbrough said that, with the exception of the students now in the voucher programs, the scholarships would be provided only to students who transfer out of public schools. He said that precludes parents who have been paying their own way in the past simply transferring the burden to the state.
But the plan, if it is approved, still will mean less in tax collections for the financially strapped state. In fact, one element of the proposal would expand the amount corporations already can contribute for such programs and avoid paying instead to the state.
Brewer had called the March court ruling "heartbreaking" for the affected families who, without state help, would be forced to take their children out of the private and parochial schools.
"Clearly, these parents identified these educational programs as the best environment for their children," the governor said in a prepared statement.