PHOENIX — The state public schools chief is defending his effort to persuade parents to use tax money to send their children to private and parochial schools.
John Huppenthal acknowledged making a recording that a private group is using for “robocalls” urging parents to take advantage of a voucherlike program to pay education costs outside the public school system.
“That right,” he said on the calls. “You may be able to send your child to private school for free.”
Huppenthal tells recipients they should be getting information in the mail soon. And if they can’t wait to find out if they qualify, the call provides a website and even a place to text.
Estimates are that 200,000 of the 1.1 million children in public schools could opt out — and take their taxpayer funding with them. And that’s even before considering a measure now working its way through the Legislature that would immediately boost that figure to 600,000 — and eventually extend to everyone.
The calls have drawn an angry response from public-school advocates.
Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, called it “appalling” that Huppenthal, whose formal title is “superintendent of public instruction,” would advocate parents removing their children from public schools.
Huppenthal would not respond to requests for an interview.
Instead, he issued a prepared statement saying his intent in touting what are called “empowerment scholarship accounts” was to “apprise parents of a unique program, not to advocate for private school instruction over that of a public school education.”
And he said it was not a slap at those who teach in public schools.
“I work tirelessly every day to assure teachers and educators are supported, students are provided with excellent education opportunities,” Huppenthal said in his statement.
Jennifer Liewer, Huppenthal’s spokeswoman, said the recording was made at the request of Alliance for School Choice, an organization that crafts legislation such as Arizona has, to make public money available for private-school tuition and fees. It works closely on that goal with the American Federation for Children.
That link, Morrill said, is significant: Campaign finance records show that latter group spent more than $63,000 on a radio ad to help elect Huppenthal in 2010.
Morrill acknowledged that was independent of Huppenthal’s own campaign. He ran that year with public funds after agreeing not to take private donations.
But Morrill suggested Huppenthal, who is running for re-election with private funds this year, is “choosing his alliances” by trying to help the organizations seeking to shift tax money to private and parochial schools.
Neither Huppenthal nor Liewer responded immediately to questions about any link between the 2010 support and his robocall.
The scholarships are available to students with disabilities, foster children, children of military families and, most recently, any child in a school rated D or F by the Department of Education. It provides 90 percent of what the state would pay for that same child to attend public schools.
The Department of Education figures the average nondisabled student gets $5,000 a year; the figure is $13,500 for a disabled student.