Arizona Parents Appeal Scholarship Case, Ask for Programs for Special Needs and Foster Children to Continue

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 19, 2008

Phoenix—Today, Arizona parents asked the state’s highest court to hear an appeal of a court ruling striking down scholarships that have given their special needs and foster children the opportunity for a quality education. Represented by the Institute for Justice and its Arizona Chapter, parents are also asking Arizona courts to ensure that scholarships continue while the case is on appeal.

“These scholarships are an educational lifeline for hundreds of children—and they are completely consistent with Arizona’s constitution and history,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter.

Last month, Arizona’s Court of Appeals overturned a trial court ruling upholding the school choice programs for children with special needs and children in foster care.

“The appellate court disregarded decades of Arizona Supreme Court precedent and long-standing Arizona policy of supporting education in both public and private schools,” said Keller. “For the sake of the children relying on these scholarships, as well as consistent application of Arizona law, it is essential that the state Supreme Court review and ultimately reverse the appellate court’s opinion.”

The appellate court found the scholarships in violation of the Arizona Constitution’s prohibition on funding “in aid of” private schools, despite state Supreme Court precedent to the contrary.

“As the Arizona Supreme Court has held, educational aid programs ‘aid’ parents and children, not schools,” Keller explained. “Food stamps don’t ‘aid’ 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.

Arizona has offered similar state-funded scholarship programs—that include the choice of public or private schools—for decades. The appellate ruling puts those programs, including college aid and dropout prevention, in jeopardy.

IJ is also filing papers to ensure that the scholarships continue while the case is on appeal. IJ will ask the Court of Appeals to clarify that its ruling did not enjoin or halt the programs from operating. Instead, the court remanded the case to the trial court, which, under Arizona law, has no jurisdiction to halt the programs as long as there is an appeal pending. This should ensure that the programs continue operating until the state’s highest court has considered the constitutional issues at stake. Nonetheless, the state has suspended the scholarships.

“Children’s educations should not be interrupted before there is a final ruling in the case,” said Keller. “A stable learning environment is especially important for special needs and foster children, and even just a year in a different school can be a huge disruption to their educational progress. Many of these children, for the first time, are in schools that are equipped to address their unique needs and help them to learn and grow.”

In addition to a motion seeking clarification, IJ is filing a motion for a stay—asking the appellate court to suspend any effects of its decision until a final ruling from the Arizona Supreme Court.

In support of the motions, IJ is submitting sworn statements from 19 Arizona families whose stories are typical of parents relying on the scholarship programs. According to these parents, the scholarships have made a huge difference in their children’s education and hopes for a better life—and without them, they will have no options left.

One of those parents is Tana Stephens of Maricopa. Her seven-year-old son Ryan, who survived a stroke before he was born and two brain surgeries, has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism disorder and faces other cognitive issues and speech impairments. He has thrived since he started at Graysmark Academy, a private school in Maricopa, thanks to a scholarship.

“We tried four different public schools in three different school districts, and none of them worked,” said Tana. “He rarely received the services he was supposed to, he wasn’t safe, and worst of all, he wasn’t learning. Now at Graysmark Academy, he is making progress—talking, writing his name, socializing with other children. He is a different little boy. I simply don’t know what we’ll do if we lose this scholarship—without this choice, he doesn’t have a chance.”

“In Arizona and across the nation, school choice is making a critical difference for families who once had no hope of a quality education,” said Chip Mellor, IJ’s president and general counsel. “It is shameful that opponents persist in their battle against educational opportunity, and it is time to put their campaign against parents and children to rest.”