The future of vouchers for private and parochial schools is up to Gov. Janet Napolitano. On a 16-12 vote the state Senate gave final approval Monday to legislation that would provide "parental education choice grants’’ that could be used to pay tuition and fees at schools outside the public system.
The House of Representatives already has given preliminary approval to identical legislation. Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, said a final vote could come as early as this week, sending the bill to the governor.
Until now, Napolitano never has — and, in fact, no Arizona governor has — had to decide whether to sign or veto such a measure: This is the first time both the House and Senate have adopted the same bill.
If the governor refuses to go along, that will end the matter because there are not sufficient votes for an override. Napolitano made it clear during her successful election campaign that she is opposed to vouchers.
Carolyn Allen, RScottsdale, Harry Mitchell, DTempe, and Rebecca Rios, DApache Junction, were the only East Valley senators to vote against the legislation Monday.
Allen has supported vouchers in the past, but said she no longer believes they are a good idea, at least in part because these private and parochial schools will not have to adhere to the same standards as public and charter schools.
"They are able to turn away students,’’ she said.
Public school officials and some parents also balk at the idea of sharing precious state money with private schools that don’t have to undergo the same testing and accountability scrutiny as public schools.
"We have a tremendous amount of school choice in the state already," said Sue Knudson, a Kyrene Elementary School District governing board member. "If they’re going to get public money, they should be held accountable in the same way."
SB1506 would provide vouchers of up to $3,500 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade so they could attend private and parochial schools. The vouchers are worth up to $4,500 for high school students. Both figures would be increased annually.
Schools with higher tuition would be free to charge the difference.
Supporters said the measure actually could save the state money — eventually — because students would be required to transfer from a public school to be eligible for a voucher of state funds.
That is based on figures from a legislative budget report which says the average yearly cost to taxpayers of sending a student to public school is about $4,700. The actual cost could be up to $2,000 higher because that figure does not include other funds for things such as school construction.
But the budget analysis, given to all state lawmakers, also acknowledges the legislation could be a net drain on tax dollars. That’s because the requirement for prior school enrollment does not apply for students entering kindergarten and first grade.
That means all students whose parents normally would have enrolled a child in a private or parochial school at their own expense could get a $3,500 voucher. That would cost $25 million the first year, more than the estimated savings from other students leaving public schools.
In fact, the report says 21,000 students would have to leave public schools in one year to make the bill revenue neutral. The analysts do not consider that likely because the current capacity of all private schools in the state is only 45,000.
The governor repeatedly has cited the state’s charter school system, schools that can be run by private corporations on a for-profit basis. They do, however, receive state aid and are technically public schools, making them subject to most state regulations. Charters also cannot discriminate against applicants.
Despite that, Verschoor said he believes Napolitano might be convinced to change her mind. "There’s some things on the table she really wants,’’ he said, such as state funding for full-day kindergarten.
The private school community is considering Monday’s vote a small victory.