Thousands of students in poorly performing public schools could soon get what amounts to a voucher from the state to go elsewhere -- or even get educated at home -- a move that could remove hundreds of millions of dollars a year from public schools.
State education officials are taking applications through Wednesday for the newly expanded "empowerment scholarship accounts.'' These essentially provide parents with a bank card, loaded with about $3,500, an amount equal to 90 percent of what the state would otherwise pay the school.
The funds can be used to pay tuition and fees at private or parochial schools. But parents also can buy books to home school their children or hire tutors, just so long as the youngster is not enrolled in a public school.
The idea is not new. Lawmakers gave initial approval to a limited program in 2011 designed to help students with disabilities.
That resulted in about 150 vouchers.
But last year legislators concluded that, beginning this fall, any student in a school rated D or F also qualifies. And at last count, that amounts to close to one out of every 10 of the more than 2,000 traditional public and charter schools in the state.
State education officials think there are about 65,000 students in traditional public schools and another 12,000 in charter schools that are graded D, as there are not yet any F-rated schools. And there could be another 10,000 who are the children of active-duty military and also are now eligible.
And each student getting one of these scholarships eventually means less money for the school from which they came.
This new expansion actually had its way paved through the courts.
After the initial program was adopted in 2011, the Arizona Education Association and others sued, claiming the vouchers violate a constitutional provision barring state aid to private and parochial schools.
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Maria del Mar Verdin refused to block implementation, saying there is a "strong showing'' the law is not unconstitutional.
That ruling is being appealed. But surviving the initial legal attack allowed Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, to expand its scope to students in D- and F-rated schools.
"It gives another option to those parents to take their children out of a D and F school,'' she said. "Obviously the school is not doing a very good job of teaching them.''
As students flee, the school and district they left will get less money. But Lesko is unapologetic.
"A school shouldn't get money if a child isn't there to be taught,'' she said. Anyway, Lesko said, she's more concerned about the student and his or her education and not the school itself.
But AEA President Andrew Morrill said that ignores the practical impact on a school that might lose 20 or 30 students scattered throughout various grades.
"You don't get rid of a teacher,'' he said.
"Those are spread throughout the entire population,'' Morrill continued. "You don't reduce the lighting in a building by 20 students' worth.''
The one saving grace is that the effect is delayed.
Stacey Morley, director of policy development and government affairs for the Department of Education, said schools get state aid based on the prior year's enrollment. So a school that finds itself losing 100 fewer students this fall to the vouchers won't get less money this coming year. But that reduction would hit in the fall of 2014.
Morrill said the answer to help failing schools is better state funding.
But state School Superintendent John Huppenthal said that's based on a flawed assumption.
"What we've seen nationwide in 30 years of failing schools is (that) nothing works,'' he said. Huppenthal said even with special intervention efforts, three-fourths of these failing schools are worse off five years later.
"Now we have to try the good-old American Way: Give parents a choice,'' he said.
Huppenthal said that doesn't necessarily mean shuttering failing schools. But he said losing students might results in putting school officials "into an environment where they have to think differently every single day'' to find new ways of providing an education to help students and keep their parents happy.
"It might be painful for a year or two,'' he said. But Huppenthal said both schools and students will be better off "once they adjust to the new environment.''
Morrill, however, sees something a bit more sinister.
"This is an agenda to defund public schools, privatize the system,'' he said, doing it a little bit at a time.
"Of course we want students well educated,'' Morrill said. "We just think the state ought to get back to what the voters want, which is ... access to a well-funded neighborhood school as an option.''
Morrill is not entirely off base in his belief that this isn't the last version of this voucher system. Lesko said she foresees a time when all students will be able to get these "empowerment scholarships.''
"My plan would be to make as many options as possible to as many students and parents as possible,'' she said. And the letter grade of the individual school is not the sole factor to consider.
"If that student does better in a private school, so be it,'' Lesko said.
"If that student does better online, that's great,'' she continued. "If that student does better in a traditional neighborhood school, then they should have the choice to do that.''