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Ducey Praises School Choice Advocates As Voucher Bill Awaits

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday praised school choice advocates gathered at the Capitol and then defended state funding to private schools that critics say siphons cash from public schools.

Ducey told reporters after an annual gathering of school choice boosters that he'll continue to be an advocate for using state tax money for charter, private and home-schooling. That's despite low funding for public schools in the state.

Ducey noted he's pushing for more money for public schools. But he declined to take a stand on an emerging proposal to expand the state's private school voucher program to all 1.1 million Arizona students.

Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko is expected to introduce a major voucher expansion bill Monday. There have been repeated expansions of the small program in recent years, but it is capped at about 5,500 students.

That cap goes away in 2020. The current program began in 2011 just for disabled students but has expanded to children attending failing schools, foster children and children of military members.

Ducey said the state will continue to be a leader on school choice.

"What I want a parent to be able to do is send a child to a school of their choice, and when we have opportunities to improve on that we're going to do that," Ducey said.

Democratic Sen. Steve Farley said yearly efforts to boost choice are siphoning cash from public schools.

"There won't be any choice if you gut your public schools to the point that nobody can go there except for the kids that don't have parents to make a choice," Farley said.

Each voucher award is money "being stolen from the local public school, which will have dwindling resources for the kids that don't have an option to go anywhere else," he said.

Lisa Graham Keegan, a former state school superintendent and vocal school choice advocate, said that's the wrong way of looking at the issue.

"You should be siphoning money onto kids, it should go in their backpack and they should go to a school that works for them," she said. "It's not siphoning money if it goes to the children's need and their education."

Ducey championed a proposition last year that settled a lawsuit filed by schools that were underfunded following the Great Recession. That adds about $300 million a year for 10 years to K-12 schools, although it is well below what they were owed.

The Republican governor is asking for $114 million in extra school funding for the budget that begins July 1, on top of required inflation boosts.

"We're making investments and we're getting results in our public K-12 schools and we're going to continue to do that," he said.

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