The Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a school voucher program that requires the state to set up a special account that parents can tap to pay tuition and fees for their children at private or parochial schools or for other educational options.
The Arizona Education Association, the Arizona School Boards Association and others filed a lawsuit to block the voucher program, alleging that it violates the state constitutional provision barring public funds from being used for religious worship or instruction. The judges rejected these arguments in a unanimous ruling on Oct. 1, reports Arizona Daily Star.
According to Judge Jon Thompson, the program does not result in the state encouraging the preference of one religion over another, or religion over atheism.
The fact that parents decide where to spend funds, designated as empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs), makes who ultimately gets the dollars irrelevant, Thompson said. "The ESA students are pursuing a basic secondary education consistent with state standards. They are not pursing a course of religious study.''
Further, the judges also rejected claims that the program violates another constitutional provision barring aid to any parochial or private school. "The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools,'' Thompson wrote in a court ruling.
The voucher program was originally approved by lawmakers in 2011 for students with special needs. The aid is equal to 90% of what the state would otherwise pay in state aid to send that child to a public school. That figure depends on everything from grade level to the child's needs; legislative staffers put the scholarships at anywhere from $1,700 to as high as $26,000.
The Legislature then expanded the program to any students attending schools rated D or F, potentially adding 100,000 students to the program. Both parties agreed that the ruling eventually could be used to expand the program statewide, allowing the parents of all 1.1 million students in Arizona to use these vouchers to opt out of the public school system.
Don Peters, who represents challengers, said this program is the only one of its kind in the nation.
"They want to give every kid a scholarship,'' Peters said. "And it'll be interesting to see what happens to the public school system if they get their wish. I don't expect every family to opt out of the public school system," he said.
"What we're doing is ensuring that every child has an opportunity to get an adequate education,'' Keller said. "The public school system is a one-size-fits-all approach.''
Peters said they plan to make an appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, which four years ago ruled a similar program was unconstitutional.