“School choice and private school vouchers” by Senator Michele Reagan
School choice in Arizona involves several components:
1) Open enrollment for public district schools. 2) Public charter schools 3) Individual and corporate scholarship tax credits. 4) Accommodating homeschool laws. 5) Distance learning opportunities. 6) Now empowerment savings accounts for disabled students.
Scholarship tax credits or private school tuition tax credits as some may know them, have been repeatedly challenged by the teacher’s union, the School Board’s Association, and the ACLU. However, they have been ruled constitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in 1999 (Kotterman v. Killian), the Arizona court of Appeals in 2009 (Green v. Garriott), and finally by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 (Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn.)
A critical holding by both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona Supreme Court was that these donations are and remain private funds not government expenditures. Thus, scholarship tax credits do not involve government assistance to private schools according to the courts. Because the average scholarship awarded pursuant to both the individual and the corporate scholarship tax credits average less than $2,500, which is less than 1/3 of what it costs from all sources to educate the same student in a public school, whether district or charter, the savings as a result of the scholarships to the taxpayers are substantial. The roughly 28,000 students who are beneficiaries of the approximately $50 million donated pursuant to these tax credits results in savings to Arizona taxpayers of millions every year. If we add the students who receive scholarships from the corporate scholarship tax credit donations the amount saved is even greater.
The corporate tax credit donations are subject to a statewide aggregate cap – about $24 million this year – and are limited by a requirement that the students receiving the scholarship come from families of modest or low income and the students must be “switchers.” They must come from a public school or be entering kindergarten.
It is also apparent from quality academic peer reviewed research that when school choice becomes meaningful, in other words when there is substantial competition; there is improvement in student academic achievement for both the student exercising the choice option as well as the student remaining in a public district school which needs to respond to the competition. We have many excellent public schools in Arizona and they are certainly capable of holding their own in a competitive environment.
In Arizona we briefly had in place a voucher program for disabled and displaced children, but it was declared unconstitutional by our Supreme Court (Caine v. Horne.) As a result of that decision, unless there is a constitutional amendment, vouchers, unlike scholarship tax credits, are simply not an option in Arizona.
Earlier this year the legislature passed and the Governor signed into law what are known as empowerment savings accounts for disabled students. These accounts involve setting aside 90% of what would have been spent at a public district school for the same student and using the funds at the direction of the parents for a variety of educational purposes such as tutoring, private school tuition, therapy, curriculum, and even for college education for these disabled students.
Sadly, the teacher’s union and the School Board’s Association have filed a lawsuit to try to slam the door on these disabled students for whom we should be increasing not limiting educational opportunities.
Arizona is a national leader in school choice. Collectively these programs provide a great way to save taxpayer money and to increase student academic achievement. That makes school choice a win/win in my view.