Report: School choice vouchers will cost millions

Proposed state bill could cost taxpayers $24.5 million

August file photo of Kindergarten students on the first day of the 2016-17 school year at Abia Judd Elementary School in Prescott. SB1431 also would allow parents of kindergartners to get vouchers without ever having to first enroll their children in a public school and without any evidence of whether they were going to put their children in private schools anyway.

Photo by Les Stukenberg.

August file photo of Kindergarten students on the first day of the 2016-17 school year at Abia Judd Elementary School in Prescott. SB1431 also would allow parents of kindergartners to get vouchers without ever having to first enroll their children in a public school and without any evidence of whether they were going to put their children in private schools anyway.

PHOENIX — Making vouchers universally available to pay for all children to attend private and parochial schools will actually increase costs to the state according to legislative budget analysis and not result in a savings as its prime sponsor is claiming.

The report by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee figures the state will shell out an extra $13.9 million by 2020 if 2.6 percent of students move from traditional public schools to private schools.

But that’s only part of the issue.

SB1431 also would allow parents of kindergartners to get vouchers without ever having to first enroll their children in a public school and without any evidence of whether they were going to put their children in private schools anyway. And the report puts the cost of providing vouchers for them would add another $10.6 million above what the state would otherwise pay to educate them in public schools, putting the total price tag by 2020 at $24.5 million.

Even that may not be the end: If more than 2.6 percent of parents are interested in getting $5,600 vouchers — formally called “empowerment scholarship accounts” — the hit to the state treasury would be even higher.

And budget analysts warn there are other changes in the legislation that could boost even further the number of students seeking vouchers.

The report comes as SB 1491 to create universal vouchers by 2020 awaits a vote in the full Senate and the House is poised to vote on HB 2394 with identical language. Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is promoting the plan as a method of saving money.

She says it takes $9,529 to educate a typical child in Arizona public schools. That, she argues, makes the $5,600 voucher for a non-disabled student a bargain.

But what this report points out is that figure includes what schools get in both federal dollars as well as what they raise from local taxpayers. When just the cost to the state is considered, vouchers are more expensive.

This report will give new ammunition to foes who contend vouchers further drain dollars from a public school system that is inadequately funded.

It isn’t just that Arizona is near the bottom of all states in the amount of aid it provides for students. There also is the low teacher pay, a factor that state School Superintendent Diane Douglas said causes 20 percent of new teachers to leave within the first year and another 20 percent the second year.

Lesko told Capitol Media Services she will not comment on the report until meets with the budget analysts who prepared it.

But Lesko said she will not abandon the legislation even if there is a net cost to the state budget. Nor does she think the report will doom the measure to political defeat.

“I could see where some people would be cautious about that,” Lesko said. And even if she has promoted it as a way to save overall tax dollars, she said that’s not the only issue.

“I really believe in this program in giving another choice to parents,” Lesko said.

The Senate vote could be close: While Republicans holding a 17-13 advantage, Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, already is opposed. That could leave Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, as the deciding vote. And Pratt said Wednesday he has not yet made up his mind.

At the heart of the financial issue is that vouchers are equal to 90 percent of what the state would pay in aid to send a child to a charter school. The state gives more to charters than to traditional public schools because they do not have access to local dollars and bonds.

So if a student uses a voucher to move from a charter school to a private one, the state saves $600.

But the report figures it costs the state an extra $800 for each student who uses a voucher to leave a public school.

Vouchers were first approved in 2011 to help parents whose children with special needs could not get the services they need in public schools.

Foes sued, charging that it violates a state constitutional provision barring public dollars from being used for religious worship or instruction.

But the state Court of Appeals said the money goes to the parents who decide how to spend the funds, making who ultimately gets the dollars irrelevant. And the judges said the vouchers do not result in the state encouraging the preference of one religion over another, or religion over atheism.

The court also rebuffed claims the program violates another constitutional provision which bars aid to parochial or private schools, saying the beneficiaries of the vouchers are the families, not the schools.

Since that time, lawmakers have expanded eligibility. The list now includes everything from children of people in the military on active duty and foster children to all children in failing schools and those living on Indian reservations.

That makes the total potentially eligible to 186,100 according to the report.

Lesko noted that current law limits the number of vouchers to no more than one-half of one percent of the approximately 1.1 million students in public and charter schools, or about 5,500. But that cap self-destructs in 2020. Using that presumed 2.6 percent migration from public schools, the report figures that there would be 25,400 students moving to private schools with the aid of vouchers, at a cost of nearly $13.9 million.

And if it turns out that 5 percent of public school students want vouchers, the cost approaches $26.8 million.

The report also estimates there would be 2,600 kindergartners who start out in private school and whose parents would take the vouchers to help defray their costs. Since they never attended public schools — and perhaps never intended to go there — there is no savings in what would have been state aid. That adds another $10.6 million to the price tag by 2020.

But here, too, the report says the costs for kindergartners could approach $21.6 million if more parents opt for vouchers.

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