Institute for Justice Will Defend Arizona’s Education Savings Accounts For Children with Special Needs

John Kramer
John Kramer · September 27, 2011

Phoenix, Ariz.—The Institute for Justice vowed to intervene on behalf of parents and children to defend against a lawsuit filed yesterday by Arizona special interest groups challenging the nation’s first publicly funded education savings account program. The program allows qualified parents of children with special needs to apply for an Arizona Empowerment Account and use the funds deposited by the state into those accounts for a wide variety of educational expenses, including tutoring, curriculum, private school tuition, required textbooks and savings for college expenses.

The plaintiffs in this new lawsuit claim that the Empowerment Account program is unconstitutional under the Arizona Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Cain v. Horne, which struck down a voucher program for children with disabilities. The Court ruled in Cain that the voucher program was unconstitutional in part because parents could only use the funds in private schools.

“Arizona Empowerment Accounts differ from the program struck down in Cain in important ways,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter. “The program gives parents a wide menu of educational options from which to choose to spend the funds. In that way, it is abundantly clear the program aids individuals—not institutions. And, as with all constitutional choice programs, parents—not the government—decide which school a child attends.”

The Arizona Empowerment Account Program is simple and straightforward. In exchange for a parent’s agreement to provide an education for their child in at least the subjects of reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science—and not enroll their child in a school district or charter school or accept a tax credit scholarship—the state will make quarterly deposits into an Arizona Empowerment Account up to an amount equivalent to 90 percent of the base support that a public school would have received to educate the child. Parents may then use the funds to purchase any mix of educational options, including paying tuition or fees at a private school, purchasing textbooks required by the private school, homeschooling their child, paying for educational therapies or services for the child from a licensed or accredited practitioner or provider, and hiring accredited tutors. Upon the child’s high school graduation, any remaining funds may be used to pay for the child’s education in an eligible college or university. The program is available only to families of children with disabilities, but otherwise there is no cap on participation in the Arizona Empowerment Account Program.

“The Institute for Justice has defended school choice programs nationwide every day since it was founded 20 years ago,” said Chip Mellor, the Institute’s president and general counsel. “We are ready to stand once again with parents who desperately need this choice to ensure Arizona’s groundbreaking education savings accounts will be there for them and for their children.”