March 10, 2005
Republican state lawmakers are making a hard charge to direct tax dollars to private and religious schools through vouchers and tax breaks for corporate tuition donations.
The GOP-controlled Legislature is poised to adopt bills on both issues, despite claims from Democrats that public support for religious schools would violate a specific prohibition in the Arizona Constitution.
The bills are championed by critics of public education who say parents should have the choice to send their children to the best schools available, regardless of their affiliation.
Officially called parental education choice grants, the voucher plan would provide scholarships for private school tuition of up to $3,500 for elementary and middle schools and up to $4,500 for high schools. The vouchers could go only to students who previously were enrolled in a public school, a provision written by sponsors to prevent the state from underwriting the tuition of students who would attend private school anyway.
Private school vouchers have been tried in limited fashions in other states. The proposal has been previously blocked with heavy lobbying from school districts, which fear a huge drain on their funding by private schools that don’t have to comply with state education standards and can refuse to take some children.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, has said that Arizona shouldn’t consider vouchers until the Legislature has raised the level of funding for public schools. A leading voucher sponsor, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said it’s unlikely Republican lawmakers could override a veto from the governor.
Napolitano, though, has offered a more conservative tone this year, and that she must think ahead to a 2006 re-election bid when Republicans will still hold a strong advantage in registered voters.
"I’m hoping that when she gets the bill, she will change her mind," Biggs said. "We know that other places that have vouchers, there is always a waiting list. People want this for their children and I’m hoping she will accept this."
Democratic lawmakers argued vigorously against the proposal Wednesday in the House of Representatives. They frequently quoted the constitutional prohibition, which states, "No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation."
"If we pass it, we are simply inviting the court to strike it down," said Rep. Linda Lopez of Tucson, the secondranking Democrat in the House.
The House gave tentative approval anyway, largely along party lines. Republicans referred to a recent state Supreme Court case on another issue that says sending tax dollars indirectly to private schools isn’t a constitutional violation.
The case dealt with the state program to provide a $500 income tax credit for individuals who donate money to school tuition organizations. In turn, those groups provide private school tuition scholarships to low-income families.
Republicans also want to expand that program by allowing corporations also to get income tax credits for donations to school tuition organizations. There would be no limit on how much a company could donate. The total tax credits would be limited to $10 million next year. The program would be allowed to grow until it reached a limit of $55 million in 2015.
Despite widespread GOP support, the corporation tax credit plan is competing with several other tax-relief proposals under consideration by the Legislature. So far, Republican leaders are willing to only fund up to $25 million, and lawmakers must decide which ideas have the highest priority.
Rep. Steve Yarbrough, RChandler, said he’s trying to convince other lawmakers the corporate tax credit actually would save the state money by drawing more students out of public schools. Conservative research groups claim private schools cost less to operate.