PHOENIX -- State lawmakers moved Thursday to let Arizonans divert more of what they owe in taxes to help students attend private and parochial schools, and to ease the legal requirements for those schools.
On a party line vote, members of the Senate Finance Committee approved creation of a second tuition tax credits program to fund scholarships for students who do not want to attend public schools. SB 1047, if it becomes law, will double the amount that individuals can get in tax credits.
By that same 5-2 vote, with Republicans in the majority, the committee approved SB 1048 which would eliminate a mandate that schools which accept the scholarship funds must test students annually to ensure they are making academic progress.
Both measures now go the full Senate.
Existing law gives individuals a dollar-for-dollar credit on their state income tax, up to $503, for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships to pay the tuition and fees of students at alternatives to public schools, and double that for couples. In 2010 the credits totaled $43.2 million.
Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, said the amount of money coming in is not enough to meet the needs of all children who want to go to a private or parochial school but cannot afford the costs.
Last year he tried raising the credit to $750 for individuals and $1,500 for couples. But that was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer who said it would unbalance the state budget.
His new plan creates an entirely new credit with limits similar to the existing one. Anyone who has reached the maximum credit on the first program could get additional credits here.
But the difference is that credit is earmarked for students who transfer from a public school.
Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, who administers one of these scholarship organizations, said that will save money. He figures the average scholarship is $2,000, compared with about $6,000 a year in state aid per pupil at public schools.
None of that pleased Serah Blain, executive director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona. She said her group does not like the idea of money that would otherwise be owed to the state being diverted to schools that are free to discriminate on who gets the aid.
Many of the largest scholarship organizations are set up to help only students who want to attend specific schools. That includes funds run by the Phoenix and Tucson dioceses as well as the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization which Yarbrough runs.
The longer debate occurred over Murphy's bill to ease the requirements for schools that want to accept the scholarships.
Janice Palmer, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association specifically complained about removing a mandate that schools annually test their students using a standardized examination and then publish an aggregate of the test scores. That requirement remains for public and charter schools.
"We want every kid to succeed,'' Palmer told committee members. "When you take away the accountability measures, we do not know if the dollars we are spending in our private schools are successful.''
Murphy countered that any child who is attending a private or parochial school is there because a parent made a conscious choice. By comparison, he said, most youngsters in public schools are there solely because that's the closest school.
"If the parent is doing research and choosing the school and then, after experiencing it, chooses to keep that child there because they think it is what is the best fit, I don't know you need much more accountability than that,'' he said. "If it wasn't working, the parent would yank them out and do something different.''
Palmer said parental satisfaction is only part of the issue, as the scholarships are being funded with dollars that otherwise would have gone to the state.
"What we're concerned about is that there's also accountability to the state of whether we're getting a return on our investment,'' she said.
"We do it with our traditional public schools, we do it with our charter schools,'' Palmer continued. "And we feel the same accountability should be leveled with private schools.''