Arizona Supreme Court Allows 'Vouchers 2.0'

Arizona Supreme Court Allows 'Vouchers 2.0'
March 24, 2014

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary Petrides Tillotson is an education reporter for Watchdog.org.  (read full bio)
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Arizona’s highest court has effectively ruled in favor of the state’s innovative education savings accounts, allowing hundreds of students access to a flexible, tailored education.

Last fall, the state’s appeals court ruled in favor of the program, distinguishing it from a voucher program that was ruled unconstitutional in 2009. Opponents of the ESA program appealed, and the Supreme Court denied the appeal in March, allowing the lower court’s decision—and the program—to stand.

“What’s tremendous is that the appeals ruling was so strong,” said Jonathan Butcher, education director of the Goldwater Institute, which had intervened in the lawsuit. “The language in there really confirmed everything that we said about education savings accounts from the beginning. We’ve made the case that they are distinct from vouchers and the provision in the law makes them unique, and parents are not compelled to spend their money on any one thing.”

Families, Not Schools, Benefit
When the state Supreme Court struck down the voucher program in 2009, it based its decision on the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funds from aiding private schools, regardless of whether they’re faith-based. Families using vouchers would have been required to spend voucher money on private schools.

Families using ESAs receive a limited-use debit card and permission to spend that money on private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, education therapy, and other educational expenses. The money rolls over year to year and can eventually help pay for college.

When the appeals court upheld the ESA program, it noted parents don’t have to spend the money on private school tuition, so the program doesn’t violate the state’s constitution.

“The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools,” its opinion stated. “Depending on how the parents choose to educate their children, this may or may not include paying tuition at a private school.”

Butcher said he hopes other states will take the court’s decision as a cue to enact ESAs.

“The life cycle of school choice programs is almost predictable,” he said. “It gets passed in the law, the union sues, the court decides, and if they decide favorably, other states start doing it.”

Expansion Under Consideration
About 700 students are currently using Arizona’s ESA program, and state lawmakers are considering several bills that would expand the program to allow more students to participate. Currently, students with special needs, children adopted from the state foster system, children assigned to failing schools, and children of active-duty military families are eligible.

Several states have considered enacting ESA programs, but so far none has done so.

“The ESA program is changing lives, and this decision … gives parents the peace of mind to know this program is going to be there in the future to help their kids,” said Tim Keller, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of Arizona families.

Article reprinted with permissionImage by Vancouver Film School.

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary Petrides Tillotson is an education reporter for Watchdog.org.  (read full bio)