- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - In a clear sign that a proposal popular with Republicans who are school choice advocates is in deep trouble, the Arizona House on Monday again delayed debate on legislation allowing all 1.1 million public school students to use state cash to attend a private school.

The scheduled debate on House Bill 2482 was pulled for the second time in a week. The full Senate approved a nearly identical bill last week.

Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, acknowledged his bill doesn’t now have the needed 31 House votes.

“We’ll continue to work the bill,” Olson said. “I think it’s a good bill for good school choice policy. We currently have school choice in Arizona. This is not going to be a significant change to current policy.”

Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the voucher program, and enough majority House Republicans now oppose it to defeat the measure. Opponents worry the expansion puts public school funding at risk.

“I just think at this point expanding it to include everyone is problematic,” said Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction. “It makes it far more difficult for school districts to budget, to know what their needs are going to be the following year.”

Republican Rep. Heather Carter of Cave Creek said she’s received an outpouring of communications from her constituents who oppose the expansion. She notes that passing a voucher expansion could jeopardize a public school funding plan championed by Gov. Doug Ducey that will be on a special election ballot on May 17.

“I think the top priority needs to be Proposition 123,” Carter said. “All efforts need to focus on making sure that passes because it delivers immediate resources to our schools who are in desperate need of those resources.”

Parents in Arizona already can send their children to charter schools or use donations received by School Tuition Organizations to pay for private schools. Some also can use so-called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that are the focus of the current legislation to go to private school.

The proposal would expand a program now capped at about 5,500 students to every public school student, allowing them to take most of the state funding their school now receive and use it for private or religious schools, home schooling or tutoring. The current program began in 2011 just for disabled students, but has expanded to children attending failing schools, foster children and children of military members.

The current cap on the program expires after 2019.

Both Olson and Den. Debbie Lesko, who is sponsoring the Senate version, said they were open to extending the current voucher cap.

“I’ve offered that as an amendment, that we would extend the out for another five years, growing it at maybe a rate of 1 percent,” Olson said. “That’s certainly something that I would be happy with.”

If the proposal passes the Legislature, Gov. Doug Ducey will have to weigh whether signing it endangers his 10-year, $3.5 billion school funding plan. He is supportive of school choice, but has not said whether he would support the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion.

“I think every kid should have a choice,” he told reporters when directly asked about the voucher expansion plan in late January. “I want to see better results for our kids.”

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