Arizona Voucher Programs Challenged in Court

Published January 1, 2007

A lawsuit filed November 14 in the Arizona Supreme Court challenges the constitutionality of two new statewide voucher programs–one for foster children, the other for disabled children–created by the legislature last June. A decision could come as early as January 4.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, People for the American Way, and three individuals are asking the state’s highest court to prohibit state officials from disbursing public funds for the programs. They contend the vouchers violate the state constitution’s provision against using public funds for religious and sectarian schools.

According to the complaint, “helping any religious organization train a new generation of adherents in its teachings and beliefs constitutes support of the most fundamental kind.”

The programs provide state-funded scholarships for foster children and disabled children to attend the schools of their families’ choosing, public or private.

‘Fundamental Fairness’

The Arizona Legislature appropriated $2.5 million a year for the scholarships. Arizona’s education budget is approximately $3.8 billion.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, said the issues are fundamental fairness and the use of public money to “promote private sectarian religious institutions.”

“What these voucher programs do is create a two-tiered system,” Meetze said. “A very small number of students get these vouchers, and the programs negatively impact 90 percent of students [allegedly by funneling state funds away from public schools].

“If people really wanted to improve the public schools, they wouldn’t abandon them,” Meetze suggested.

Educational Difficulties

Supporters of the voucher programs say children, not schools, are the beneficiaries of the state dollars.

The Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm, represents parents who want to use scholarships for their children’s education.

“This isn’t some esoteric question of policy, at least for [these parents],” senior attorney Clark Neily explained. “This is just about making sure their kids are getting a decent education at a place where they can feel safe.”

In response to the suit, the institute filed affidavits signed by parents of special-needs children. One of those parents is Kimberly Wuestenberg, a Glendale resident and single mother of two, who has difficulty finding an appropriate school for her 13-year-old son, Imre. Imre has Asperger Syndrome, a neurobiological disorder characterized by deficiencies in social and communication skills.

“In my opinion, the public school system is unable to provide an education environment where children with neurobiological conditions can thrive and eventually become a successful part of society,” Wuestenberg’s affidavit says. “These children suffer severe emotional distress, depression, and low self-esteem as a result of constant harassing and teasing from mainstream students.”

Wuestenberg would like to apply for a scholarship for Imre, but she worries the lawsuit suggests the program is not yet secure, according to the affidavit.

‘Ripe Environment’

Arizona is often touted as a particularly ripe environment for school choice. Approximately 500 charter schools educate about 10 percent of the state’s public school population, said Matthew Ladner, vice president of policy research at the Goldwater Institute.

In 1997, Arizona enacted the nation’s first individual tax credit program for residents who donate money to private scholarships. In 2005, the legislature created a similar program for corporate donors.

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the individual tax credit in 1999, noting that because the money was donated by individuals, it never reached the state treasury.

The ACLU and Arizona School Boards Association sued against the corporate tax credit in September. Ladner said he wasn’t surprised when the ACLU challenged the new voucher programs, the state’s first.

“It is basically a question of whether our friends on the left are more dedicated to their goals or their policies,” Ladner said. “You’re either in favor of helping disadvantaged kids or you line up with the teachers union and talk about reforming the system from the inside, which isn’t happening either.”

Neily said the court will decide by January 4 whether to accept or reject the case, schedule oral arguments, or rule on it outright.

Hilary Masell Oswald ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois.