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Voucher bills would harm public schools

Citizen Staff Writer

Arizona spends less on its school system than almost every other state. So it is shameful that the Legislature is pushing bills that would siphon even more money from public schools.

Instead of dreaming up new ways to undermine public schools, lawmakers should be working to strengthen them.

Legislators are moving ahead with a series of bills that would put state money in private and parochial schools – although the measures likely are unconstitutional.

Under Article 2, Section 12 of the Arizona Constitution, “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”

That seems unambiguous. But legislators have, nonetheless, given approval to a bill that would provide parents with a state-funded voucher to pay tuition and fees at any school – private or religious. The vouchers would be for $3,500 for each grade school pupil and $4,500 for each high school student.

Two other bills would limit vouchers to disadvantaged students, to those who are disabled, to those unable to pass third-grade reading tests, to English language learners or to students attending schools that are not meeting academic standards.

Another bill would take money from public schools in a different way. It would allow corporations to reduce their income taxes by an amount equal to what they donate to private and parochial school scholarships. The total amount of credits would be capped at $5 million a year.

Depending on how the money is counted and who is doing the counting, Arizona is either dead last or two or three spots from the bottom in per-pupil spending. That would only get worse under the Legislature’s hunt for new ways to take money out of the public treasury and give it to private schools.

State Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said he supports vouchers because they would allow low-income parents to send their children to private schools. “You should not be required to keep them in a failing school just because you are impoverished,” Biggs said.

But there is a far better solution. Instead of looking for ways to remove students from inadequate public schools, legislators should be improving those schools.

More money for education, including an increase in teachers’ salaries, would be a good start. And if legislators were truly concerned about the Arizona children, they would support Gov. Janet Napolitano’s drive to have state-paid, all-day kindergarten throughout Arizona.

Vouchers undermine public schools and are constitutionally questionable. Lawmakers should drop this quest.

Las Artes works

Arizona has one of the nation’s highest high school dropout rates. But there is a school here in which 85 percent to 90 percent of the students succeed, receiving their General Educational Development diplomas.

That amazing record has been achieved by Las Artes Art and Learning Center, where students create public art while crafting their futures.

In a large studio in South Tucson, Las Artes students learn art while also earning their high school equivalency degree.

Other schools would be well-advised to study the programs at Las Artes and emulate what is working there.

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