By Tim Keller
Resilience is a hallmark of The IJ Way. Out in Arizona, IJ’s resilience on the school choice battlefield is making a real difference in the lives of special-needs children and their families.
For six years, we have fought on behalf of kids with special needs in both the legislative and judicial arenas. We helped draft multiple pieces of school choice legislation to assist these children and we have defended every program that has been challenged in court by the teachers’ unions. We celebrated a significant victory in January when a Maricopa County Superior Court judge upheld the nation’s first publicly funded education savings account program.
Most people are familiar with the concept of education savings accounts. At the federal level, both Coverdell and 529 accounts permit families to save a capped amount of their own money in an account that will grow tax-free until the funds are distributed—and distributions that do not exceed qualified educational expense limits are tax-exempt.
But Arizona’s education savings account program—known as the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account Program—does not rely on private contributions. Participants in Arizona’s empowerment account program receive 90 percent of what the state would have spent on the participating students at their public schools. And unlike a voucher program, in which parents use the funds only for private school tuition, the empowerment account program gives parents an a la carte menu of educational options from which to choose.
Parents may hire private tutors, contract with therapists, purchase home school curricula, pay for private online instruction, pay for tuition at brick-and-mortar private schools, or any combination of these things. And any money remaining in the account after the child graduates high school may be used for college tuition and textbooks. The empowerment account program thus allows parents to build, from the ground up, an educational program uniquely tailored to meet their child’s educational needs while also incentivizing them to save for college.
This particular school choice battle began six years ago when the Arizona Legislature created the Scholarship for Pupils with Disabilities Program, a voucher program that allowed parents who were dissatisfied with their children’s progress in public school to enroll them in private school and use a publicly funded scholarship to pay the tuition. That program was struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2009 because, the Court said, parents had “no choice” but to send their kids to a private school. But, the Court also concluded its opinion saying that “there may well be ways” of providing assistance to these children that do not violate Arizona’s Constitution.
IJ believes the empowerment account program is one of those ways because under the program parents have complete freedom to decide how best to educate their children. Nothing about the program requires parents to enroll their children in private school. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Maria del Mar Verdin agreed. In her ruling she said, “There is a strong showing that [the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program] is constitutional because it allows the parents of qualified students to choose how and when all, or a portion of, the scholarship monies are spent.”
Opponents of parental choice in education have already filed their appeal. But IJ is standing firm and is resolved to achieve victory against all odds.
Tim Keller is executive director of the IJ Arizona Chapter.