Horne torn on acting on school vouchers
Arizona Republic
Aug 13, 2008

Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ) - August 13, 2008

Author: Mary Jo Pitzl, The Arizona Republic

Republican lawmakers are trying to salvage a voucher program that was cut from the state budget and hope to persuade state school Superintendent Tom Horne to cover the costs from his own budget.

However, Horne says he can't make the move on his own and is awaiting a decision from a state agency and, if needed, the state attorney general.

It adds up, at a minimum, to a delay in any attempt to restore a program that provided state dollars to cover the private-school tuition bills of disabled children as well as those in foster families.

It also lead to a legal tangle over who has the authority to appropriate state dollars, and it could prolong the debate over private-school vouchers.

Meanwhile, families who benefited from the program last school year are taking different approaches as a new school year begins. Some are keeping their children in the private schools but footing the tuition bill themselves. Others have turned to their public schools.

At issue is a $5 million program that was cut from the state budget during negotiations in June as lawmakers and Gov. Janet Napolitano looked for ways to close a $2 billion budget deficit.

House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, has been looking for ways to restore the program. His attempt to use surplus money in his office's budget was rejected as illegal; he and his staff now believe a state law gives Horne , as head of the state Department of Education, the ability to take surplus money from the state's school-spending account and put it into the voucher program.

But Horne , citing another state law, said he first needs approval from the state Department of Administration, which reports to Napolitano, to transfer the money. If the agency refuses, he will ask Attorney General Terry Goddard if he has the legal standing to make the transfer.

Republican lawmakers peppered him with questions, pressing their point that they think Horne can act on his own, as long as he gets a favorable referral from the legislative appropriations committee.

That approval came Tuesday, on a party-line 8-3 vote. Now Horne has to get state approval, a request he made on Tuesday.

Horne said that while he supports the voucher program and will work to get quick approvals, he does not believe he can proceed on his own.

Myra Zwagerman is the parent of an autistic child who benefitted from the scholarship program last year. Although she couldn't get a voucher this year, her son, Lee, is continuing at Valley Christian High School in Chandler because she's been so impressed with his improvement at the smaller private school compared with the Tempe public schools.

She said the family has cut back on some of the services that Lee, a sophomore, receives, reducing his tuition bill.

"We're kind of in a sweat-equity thing," she said, adding that her family is working at the school to offset the tuition cost.

Edition: Final Chaser
Section: VALLEY & State
Page: B8
Dateline: AZ
Record Number: pho108894305