State lawmakers want voters to repeal a constitutional provision that now keeps public funds from going to aid private and parochial schools.
On a 3-2 vote Wednesday night, the Senate Committee on Education Accountability and Reform approved sending a measure to the ballot that would allow the state to give tax-funded vouchers to parents whose students are attending schools which the state Department of Education has labeled as "failing.'' The amount of that voucher would be whatever the state would have given to the public school or the amount of the private school's tuition and fees, whichever is less.
But the wording of the measure actually would open the door wider: It seeks to repeal an entire section of the Arizona Constitution which specifically bars the use of public dollars "in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school.''
That change would be significant: The Arizona Supreme Court cited that provision last year when it voided a program to give state funds to the parents of students with special needs to pay for their education at private schools.
Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, who tacked the language onto the more narrow measure, admitted that repealing the constitutional language makes vouchers for all students "a possibility.'' But she said that's not the intent.
State law requires the Department of Education to grade each school based on a series of measurements, from scores on standardized tests to graduation rates. Schools get ratings from excelling on one extreme to "failing to meet standards'' on the other.
The most recent report shows 19 schools out of 1,895 that were failing.
"Students that are in a failing school should have the opportunity to go and receive a quality education,'' Gray said. "It's a disservice if they don't have another option.''
Mike Smith, lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators Association, said the change, if approved by voters in November, would undermine the state's obligation to support public schools.
But Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, said that stance takes too narrow a view. He said the public education system consists not only of traditional district schools and charter schools but also private schools and even parents who teach their youngsters at home.
HCR 2057 now goes to the full Senate. If approved there it still needs to be considered by the full House, which has never seen this language.
The final word remains with voters who have to approve all constitutional changes.