Arizona Supreme Court to Decide Future Of Scholarships for Special Needs and Foster Children

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · December 9, 2008

Phoenix—Today, the Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments to decide the educational fates of nearly 450 special needs and foster children who rely on state scholarship programs to escape public schools that failed to meet their individual needs and instead attend the public or private schools of their parents’ choice. Before the argument, more than 200 parents and children from across the state rallied on the steps of the court in support of the scholarships.

“These scholarships have provided educational opportunity and real hope for a better life for hundreds of Arizona schoolchildren—and they are completely consistent with our state Constitution and policy traditions,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter. Keller argued before the court in defense of the programs on behalf of scholarship families.

“The Arizona Supreme Court and the Arizona Constitution have always looked favorably upon school choice programs,” Keller added. “Opponents cannot point to a single Arizona case that supports their position. Instead they urge the court to reverse decades of legal precedent and policy practice in our state, undermining not only the children relying on these scholarships, but also those who use other educational aid programs such as college scholarships and drop-out prevention programs. Just like the scholarships for special needs and foster children, all of those state-funded programs offer the choice of public, private and religious schools.”

“As the Arizona Supreme Court has held, the true beneficiaries of educational aid programs are parents and children, not schools,” Keller explained. “Food stamps are not ‘in aid of’ grocery stores, they help people buy food—just as these scholarships help parents buy an education suited to their children’s needs.”

Indeed, for years Arizona has used state money to pay for children with special needs to attend private schools. Under that system, public school officials decide when a private school is appropriate. The scholarships enable parents instead to make that choice for their children.

One such parent is IJ client Andrea Weck, whose daughter Lexie was diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy and mild mental retardation. Lexie made no progress in public schools, and officials admitted they did not know how to educate her. Now, thanks to a scholarship, Lexie is thriving at Chrysalis Academy, a private school in Tempe that specializes in educating children with autism and related disorders.

“Thanks to the choice that these scholarships gave me, Lexie is a different little girl,” said Andrea. “Lexie has learned to communicate with me and her sisters through sign language, and thanks to the daily speech therapy she receives at Chrysalis, this year we expect her to speak for the very first time.”

Without the scholarship, Andrea, a single mother with two other girls, would not be able to afford the tuition and would be forced to send Lexie to a school that cannot meet her needs. About half of the students enrolled at Chyrsalis rely on the scholarships, while most of the other students are placed there by public school officials. Teachers’ unions and other school choice opponents have only challenged the scholarship program that enables parents to choose a school.

“Why do the teachers’ unions and other special interest groups want to stop Lexie’s growth?” asked Andrea. “They don’t object when public school officials make the same decisions for other children. All that parents want is the freedom to place our children in schools that meet their unique educational needs and help them to flourish as we know they can.”

IJ client Jessie Geroux is also the mother of a child with autism, and she works with Arizona Autism Support to support and advocate for the needs of families facing an autism diagnosis.

“For children with disabilities, it can be a months-long process to even be considered for an appropriate school placement through the traditional system, but these scholarships give parents real choice and opportunity to find a school that works,” said Jessie.

“In Arizona and across the nation, school choice is empowering parents to have a real say in their children’s educational futures,” said Chip Mellor, IJ’s president and general counsel. “The Arizona Supreme Court should vindicate that right and put to rest the shameful legal campaign of school choice opponents.”

Signed into law in 2006 by Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program and the Displaced Pupils Grant Program are serving nearly 450 children this academic year. The Arizona Education Association, the ACLU of Arizona and the People for the American Way, among others, challenged the programs in January 2007.

In June 2007, the Maricopa County Superior Court upheld the scholarship programs, but earlier this year the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned that ruling.