Arizona Lawsuit: ESAs not Constitutional, say Plaintiffs

This year the Arizona legislature authorized Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). These bills give the parents of special-needs children the power to withdraw their children from public schools and design their own educational plan, using the money that would have originally gone to the local district.

“Children with disabilities are often poorly served by public schools,” writes Matthew Ladner at the Goldwater Institute.

“This program allows children with disabilities to take a portion of the funding the state would spend on their education and use it at any school they choose – whether that’s a traditional public school, a charter school, an online program, or a private school.”

It is thought that several states, including Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah, are also looking to consider ESA bills next year.

But that’s in dispute now, as the constitutionality of the bill was challenged by institutions including the Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Boards Association. They took out a lawsuit, arguing that the program violates state provisions that prohibit the spending of state funds on private or religious schools.

The Goldwater Institute has joined the state in opposing the lawsuit, which echoes a 2006 ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court that struck down a program for special needs children modeled on the McKay Scholarship Program, citing a provision in the Arizona Constitution called the Blaine Amendment.

But the bill may be upheld, as the trial court this week dismissed one of the plaintiffs’ claims, saying that they didn’t have the standing to assert that the ESA program unconstitutionally gives out educational benefits when giving up on a public school education.

This means that one of the three main claims of the plaintiffs has been rejected by the court before oral arguments even get under way, leaving their case in tatters.

“The State should give education funds directly to parents and allow them to spend the money on a wide range of options and services,” says Ladner.

A new report by the Goldwater Institute recommends creating Education Savings Accounts into which the state would donate funds in exchange for parents agreeing not to enroll their child in a public school, complying with the 2006 Arizona Supreme Court ruling.

Parents would then be free to use the money for a wide range of educational services, including private school tuition.

“Not only should judges find such these accounts constitutional, but they would also hold distinct advantages over school vouchers. Those advantages include allowing students to save for college and encouraging the creation of innovative low-cost, high quality online and hybrid school models.”

The court case continues.