Unions on edge as Arizona lawmakers weigh major expansion of education overhaul

Lawmakers in Arizona are poised to expand a controversial education program that lets parents divert state funds to virtually any school option they wish -- a move teacher groups and unions say would decimate the public education system.

The Arizona legislature could decide as early as Friday whether to increase the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program to 28,000 students in the next five years, with the ultimate goal of giving 1 million students the ability to decide where and how they get their education.

The program does far more than a traditional school voucher system. Here’s how it works: the ESA program transfers money the state would normally pay for a child to attend public school to a private bank account. Qualifying students are given a debit card and have the freedom to spend the money on education-related expenses which include everything from tuition at a private school to books for home-schooled students.

Arizona’s program – the first of its kind in the country – is currently offered to the state’s 761 special needs students. Six states have similar proposals in the works.

Several bills up for consideration in the Arizona legislature would expand the program to low-income children, which could mean stripping the state education fund of more than $374 million a year. Students now participating in the program get at least $2,900 a year, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Based on the child’s level of need, that amount could jump as high as $31,000.

“The idea was to create a school-choice system for the 21st century,” Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, told FoxNews.com. “Our public schools are based on a 19th century model.”

Bolick believes the program promotes competition among public, charter, private and home-school programs.

Others, like Arizona’s Democratic Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar, argue that it sets up an unfair fight between cash-strapped public schools and wealthy private institutions looking to pad their pockets with taxpayer money. She believes that ESAs will “decimate public education.”

The initial plan was approved in 2011.

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, told The Arizona Republic, "the legislation isn’t about school choice but instead a sneaky way to privatize schools."

Several states are watching how the program plays out in Arizona. So far, six have introduced legislation with varying degrees of success that would set up programs similar to Arizona’s. They include: Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, Iowa and Florida.

Mississippi and Missouri are the closest to copying and passing a plan similar to the one Arizona now has for special needs children.

The plan in Missouri would funnel 90 percent of the state’s education funds for a student into a savings account controlled by the parent or guardian of the child. The money can go toward anything from tutoring to textbooks.

In Mississippi, state lawmakers approved a pilot program that would give 500 special needs students $6,100 each to be used toward education expenses. The money would be distributed on a quarterly basis to those who qualify and, similar to plans in Missouri and Arizona, can be used for private-school tuition, school supplies and other education-related expenses.

Unlike traditional school voucher programs that hand out government-funded coupons to low-income families to be used toward the cost of tuition at private schools, ESAs don’t restrict spending to private school-only expenses. ESA supporters say the program allows parents more freedom to tailor education programs to the specific needs of their children.

In Mississippi, any unused money will be rolled over from year to year. Lawmakers argue this gives parents the incentive to be more cost-conscious with the money.  If there are funds left over by the time a student finishes high school, the money can then be used toward higher education costs. If there are no plans for further schooling, the unused money in the account reverts back to the state.