- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - An Arizona House proposal would remove limits on the state’s school voucher program to allow every public school student to use state cash to attend a private school.

The expansion proposal in House Bill 2482 is the latest in a series that began after the Republican-controlled Legislature created the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011.

The program initially only applied to students with disabilities and was sold as a way for parents to choose private programs that best suited their children.

It has expanded repeatedly since then and now includes children in very low-performing schools, living on Indian reservations, whose parents are military members, and other groups.

The proposal by Mesa Republican Rep. Justin Olson would maintain a cap on enrollment of ½ of one percent of the state’s 1.1 million public school students as the plan expanded over three years to include all K-12 students. That’s currently about 5,400 students.

But that cap expires after 2019, meaning all students in the state could apply starting in 2020.

Olson, who wields considerable power as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, says expanding the program benefits Arizona children and phases in those increases.

“I think it’s an appropriate approach to school choice that expands the opportunities to all Arizona students but does it in a measured way so it can roll out in a smooth process,” Olson said.

Last year, Republicans and Democrats banded together to stop a similar expansion proposal. Opponents said the expansion comes at the expense of public schools.

The Republicans were led by Rep. Heather Carter, who said she worried about taking more money from public schools that serve more than 80 percent of the state’s students and about accountability.

She said this week that she had not yet reviewed the latest proposal and declined to comment.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, a Chandler Republican who is a big booster of school choice, said the program actually provides a savings for taxpayers because students moving to a private school don’t get any local money, even if the state actually spends more on them.

“We want to do more for more kids - that’s what we want to do,” he said. “We want to help more kids and do so more effectively and more efficiently.”

Democrats call the argument that vouchers save schools money a false one. They argue that public schools’ fixed costs remain the same when students are siphoned into private schools.

“That’s how you undercut and undermine the entire public education system, which 82 percent of Arizona parents send their kids to,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. “I don’t know how they think is an electoral winner either, because there are a whole lot more people who vote sending their kids to public schools then there are sending them to private parochial schools. So the free market has chosen public schools.”

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