By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
A 3-0 decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the state’s innovative education savings accounts program to the relief of about 300 Arizona families who use the funds in their accounts to educate their children outside the traditional public school system.
“I’m really grateful. I’m so glad,” said Crystal Fox, who sends two of her three special needs children to private schools through school choice programs, one of them with an ESA.
In Arizona, qualifying families, mostly those with disabled children, can receive 90 percent of public schools’ per-pupil funding to educate their children in a variety of ways — private schools, education therapy, private tutoring. Leftover money can be put toward college.
Fox’s son Austin, in addition to seeing substantial academic improvement at his new school, has $20,000 saved for college. The 17-year-old, who according to an Institute for Justice statement, does not believe in God, chose a Christian school because it suited his needs.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s voucher program unconstitutional, since the state’s constitution prohibits public funds from aiding private schools, even if they aren’t religious.
The Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona Education Association challenged the ESA program, arguing that ESAs are too similar to vouchers and aid private schools.
But the court made a distinction: “The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools,” the court’s opinion stated. “Depending on how the parents choose to educate their children, this may or may not include paying tuition at a private school.”
That’s an important distinction, said Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, which intervened in the suit to defend the program that it helped develop.
“Parents aren’t compelled to buy anything specific, as opposed to with a voucher, they are compelled to use it for private school tuition,” Butcher said. “In a state like Arizona that has such strong constitutional prohibitions [against] using public money for religious or private purposes like that, that makes ESAs so critical.”
The unanimity of the decision is reason for hope, should the case go before the state supreme court, he said.
“I think that’s a strong indication of just how solid our position is – that the accounts are distinct from vouchers, which they found in Arizona to be unconstitutional,” he said.
The state Supreme Court likely will hear the case, said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice’s Arizona chapter, which represented parents in the case, in a statement.
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at email@example.com.
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