Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has confused many in the school choice community during the last 24 hours by signing into law a bill creating “savings accounts” for students with special needs while simultaneously killing a measure that would have expanded opportunities in the state’s tax credit scholarship.
In a letter announcing her veto, Brewer says she recognizes “the importance of empowering parents” but warns that HB 2581 “unbalances the budget.” A tax credit scholarship made available to students who want to leave the public school system likely can lessen the financial burden of the state, Brewer wrote, but the current measure “expands the pool of qualified students that may qualify.” Also, she added, removing the cap on corporate tax credits would make budgeting difficult.
This is where things get muddled. Nothing in the bill’s fiscal analysis backs up the governor’s assertion that an expanded pool of students would unbalance the budget. In fact, House analysts report that if more public school students took advantage of the scholarship — just 3,300 — they would offset the loss of tax revenues that resulted from the bill, which they estimated to be at $17.2 million for 2012. Brewer seems to be suggesting this wouldn’t happen, but she doesn’t say why.
Brewer did, however, bestow her blessing on a limited version of a plan, birthed at the free-market oriented Goldwater Institute, that has generated a lot of controversy in other states such as Florida. In Arizona, the plan creates what are called “Empowerment Accounts,” which in this sense would benefit special education students with money their parents can apply to the instructional needs they determine are appropropriate. These might include private school tuition, tutoring or textbooks. The amount of money placed in an account would be 90 percent of the per-pupil funding that a public school would have received for the child.
While the accounts are limited to special education, their proponents somehow managed to escape much of the notice directed at those who advocated for their passage in Florida. When Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s education transition team recommended a more universally applied “Education Savings Account,” the suggestion was attacked as a “voucher for all,” and Scott has since backed away from the idea.