Arizona Appeals Court Overturns Ruling for School Choice, Scholarships for Special Needs and Foster Children in Jeopardy

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 16, 2008

Phoenix—An Arizona appellate court today overturned a lower court ruling upholding school choice, putting the brakes on two school choice programs that help special needs and foster children secure educational opportunities—and putting at least a half-dozen other state programs in jeopardy.

The Institute for Justice, which is defending the programs on behalf of Arizona families, vowed to appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. The program should continue during the appeal, and IJ will do everything necessary to ensure children’s educations continue uninterrupted.

“Families across Arizona are counting on these scholarships as the only means to secure a quality education for their children,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter. “Pulling the rug out from under these children is not only appalling and tragic, it is a radical departure from Arizona constitutional and policy history.”

Indeed, for years Arizona has used state money to place children with special needs in private schools better suited to their educational needs. Under that system, public school officials decide when a private school is appropriate. The scholarships free parents instead to make that choice for their children.

“Perversely, this ruling gives bureaucrats more power over educational decisions than parents, but the Arizona Constitution draws no such distinction,” said Keller. “Parents should be just as free to choose a private school for their own child as bureaucrats are.”

“I can’t believe that the courts would take away a program that is helping my daughter and so many other children get a good education,” said Andrea Weck, whose six-year-old daughter Lexie has been diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy and mild mental retardation. Thanks to the scholarships, Lexie is thriving at her private school—where about half the children are using scholarships and half were placed by public schools using state funds. “It is not fair to single out parents and punish them for choosing a private education when public school officials choose private education for children with disabilities all of the time.”

Moreover, as the lower court ruled, these scholarship programs fall squarely within U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona Supreme Court precedent, including the landmark 1999 Kotterman state Supreme Court case upholding scholarship tax credits. And Arizona has offered similar state-funded scholarship programs—that include the choice of public, private or religious schools—for decades. This ruling puts those programs, including college aid and dropout prevention, in jeopardy.

“Across the nation, Arizona has served as model of educational choice and innovation—and has demonstrated that school choice works,” said Chip Mellor, IJ’s president and general counsel. “That success is what opponents fear, and it is why school choice should not be derailed by baseless legal claims.”