State Rep. Jack Harper (R-Surprise) has proposed legislation that would amend Arizona’s constitution to allow state-funded vouchers for disabled and foster children.
“I believe [a voucher] breaks down the barriers to competition and sharpens the focus of public schools to want to do a good job for every child,” he said.
In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down two voucher programs because the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment prohibits sending public monies to religious schools. Arizona legislators then approved education savings accounts for disabled children to accomplish similar ends without violating the constitution.
Harper’s plan would allow state-funded, $5,500 vouchers to pay private-school tuition for qualified students in any school where average class sizes exceed 35.
First Flight for Arizona ESAs
Analysts from school-choice legal heavyweights the Goldwater Institute and Institute for Justice say they would like to see Arizona’s ESAs—the first in the nation—given a chance to withstand current court challenges before trying a constitutional amendment.
“[ESA] is the next generation of education reform,” said Jonathan Butcher, the Goldwater Institute’s education director.
Signed into law in April 2011, SB 1553 created Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which provide an average of $13,000 in public funds per special-needs student. Funding amounts range from $3,500 for mildly disabled students to more than $25,000 for those with serious disabilities.
Seventy-five students joined the program in fall 2011. Another 72 requested applications in December. There are currently 125,000 special-needs students in the state, a population requiring immediate attention, Butcher said.
“Public schools have for generations tried the one-size-fits-all approach, trying to be all things to all children,” Butcher said. “But there are a host of different needs when you put highly functioning, bright autistic children in a class with students that have a different diagnosis.”
‘The Key’: Education Debit Cards
In Cain v. Horne, the Arizona Supreme Court laid down guidelines for future attempts at school choice. It ruled requiring a parent to sign over a lump sum to a private school was unconstitutional.
ESAs avoid that problem because parents “receive a debit card which they can use on a wide array of educational options,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice’s Arizona chapter. “That was the key—parents previously had no choice but to use those funds for a private-school education. The ESA program permits tutoring, occupational speech help, homeschooling, and the ability to purchase curriculum and other educational materials.”
Payments are awarded quarterly. Parents must submit receipts to the state’s education department before receiving the next quarter’s payments.
‘Good Chance for Reasonable Ruling’
The ink was barely dry on the bill before the state’s teachers union filed suit to halt it. Keller is optimistic the state’s high court will declare ESAs constitutional.
The state and the Goldwater Institute joined him in arguing for the program before Phoenix’s Maricopa Circuit Court. He says he expects the case to move rapidly to the state Supreme Court now that the Maricopa judge ruled in his party’s favor and opponents promised to appeal.
“There’s a very good chance for a reasonable ruling from the Supreme Court,” Keller said. “While [Harper’s] intentions are admirable, right now we need to let the current court case play out. If education savings accounts are upheld, it would offer a very robust program of school choice that could eventually be made available to all students.”
Butcher agrees, noting in addition to special-needs students, 94,000 children currently attend “D”-rated schools in Arizona.
“Vouchers have been considered the Holy Grail for school choice in the past, but that isn’t necessarily the case anymore,” Butcher said.
Other states are expressing interest in ESAs, including Florida, which has been working on language for new legislation after opponents successfully stopped a similar bill in early 2011.
Blaine amendments—19th-century limits rooted in anti-Catholic bias—should not prevent school-choice supporters in otheir states, Butcher said.
“[A Blaine Amendment] certainly hasn’t stopped Arizona and Florida from posing bills and getting them passed,” he said. “Hopefully, what we’ve done and are doing in Arizona will have its effect nationwide.”
Image by Nathan Jones.