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Arizona Court of Appeals Upholds School Choice Program
In a recent decision, the Arizona Court of Appeals distinguished the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program in Arizona from the state’s voucher program and held the ESA was meant for the benefits of families under the program and not for the benefit of organizations.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court had ruled the voucher program in Arizona as unconstitutional as it allowed the use of public funds to aid private schools, and the Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona Education Association wanted to shut down the ESA program because it was too similar to the voucher program.
The issues that came before the Arizona Court of Appeals included the following:
Whether the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program violates Article 2, Section 12 of the Arizona Constitution (the Religion Clause)?
Whether the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program violates Article 9, Section 10 of the Arizona Constitution (the Aid Clause)?
Whether the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program conditions receipt of a government benefit on the waiver of a constitutional right because it requires that the parent of a qualified student promise not to enroll the student in public school?
However, the Arizona Court of Appeals observed, “The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools … Depending on how the parents choose to educate their children, this may or may not include paying tuition at a private school.”
The unanimous 3-0 decision from the Court of Appeals has raised the hopes of about 300 families that depend on the ESA program for the educating their children outside the public school system. Many of these children have special needs and public schools often do not have the facilities to accommodate the needs of the children.
Under the program, qualifying families can receive funding for private schools, education therapy, private tutoring and other avenues subject to a maximum of 90% of what the state would have spent had the child been in a public school.