Arizona Supreme Court:  Special Needs Scholarship  Programs Violate State Blaine Amendment

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · March 25, 2009

Arlington, Va.—The Arizona Supreme Court today said that two state-funded scholarship programs that enable special needs students to attend private schools of their parents’ choosing must end after this school year.  The Court’s decision says that Arizona’s Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program and its Displaced Pupil’s Grant Program violate one of the Arizona Constitution’s Blaine Amendments, specifically Article 9, section 10 which prohibits “appropriations of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation.”

“This is not the end of the line for these parents or for school choice advocates,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter.  “We will consider all of our legal and policy options in light of today’s unfortunate decision in the hopes of helping these vulnerable students obtain the best education that Arizona has to offer, regardless of whether that is in a public or a private school.”

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision does allow the two scholarship programs to continue through the end of the 2008-2009 school year.  However, beginning next school year this decision will force hundreds of students with disabilities and children who have been in the foster care system to return to schools that have previously failed to meet their educational needs.

One of those children will be Lexie Weck, a six-year-old little girl with autism, cerebral palsy and mild mental retardation who relies on the program for pupils with disabilities to attend the Chrysalis Academy, a small private school in Tempe that specializes in working with autistic children.  Andrea Weck, Lexie’s single mom, was one of the parents who joined with the Institute to Justice to defend the program in Court.

“The opportunity created by the scholarship program changed Lexie from the inside out,” Andrea Weck said.  “While Lexie struggled to make any academic or social progress in public school, she has absolutely flourished at the Chrysalis Academy.  I don’t know how I will ever be able to afford the tuition at Chrysalis, but I also don’t know how I could put her back in a public school and face the possibility of her regressing.”

Watch this video of Lexie and the dramatic progress she has made at Chrysalis and of Andrea Weck’s legal battle to defend her daughter’s scholarship.

Ironically, more than half of the students who attend Chrysalis are placed there by public school districts that use public funds to pay their tuition.  Those children’s educational future, however, are not in jeopardy.

“The school choice programs struck down today merely allow parents of special needs children to do what public school districts do every day:  place special needs children in private schools and use public funds to pay the cost of tuition,” explained Keller.  “Arizona has paid for special needs students to attend private schools for years through state and federal programs.”

A 2006 Institute for Justice study, Private Choice in Public Programs:  How Private Institutions Secure Social Services for Arizonans, found that Arizona has at least six educational aid programs for children who choose private and religious schools, including programs for children in foster care and students with disabilities.  Those six voucher programs serve more than 22,000 students a year, totaling nearly $22 million in publicly funded scholarships.  The report by Dr. Dick Carpenter, IJ’s director of strategic research, is available here.

“The Arizona Supreme Court’s decision is wrong on both the law and on the facts,” continued Keller.  “For decades the Arizona Supreme Court has said that neutral programs based on parental choice are constitutional.  School choice programs aid families and children by empowering parents to choose from a broad range of private schools.  They do not aid schools.  The programs should therefore pass constitutional muster.”

“It is heartbreaking to see the door of hope and choice slammed on families of children with special needs,” said IJ client Jessica Geroux, whose son Tyler has autism.  “Educational placement decisions should be left up to those that know the child best, their parents.  I will respect the Justices and their decision, but feel strongly that they got it wrong.”

Today’s Supreme Court decision did not question the continuing vitality of its 1999 Kotterman v. Killian decision, which upheld Arizona’s Individual Tax Credit Scholarship Program against a similar legal challenge.  That is good news for the many families who rely on tax-credit funded private school scholarships and it suggests that the Supreme Court will affirm the recent Arizona Court of Appeals decision in Green v. Garriott, upholding Arizona’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship, if school choice opponents appeal the Green decision.

“Arizona has been a pioneer in providing parental choice options and we have no doubt that will continue,” said IJ President Chip Mellor.  “The Institute for Justice remains committed to defending school choice nationwide, as legislatures recognize the need for this important reform.”