ACLU Opposes Taxpayer-Funded Scholarships for Disabled, Foster Kids

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - A legal battle over two new scholarships in Arizona has pitted proponents of school choice for children who have special needs or live in foster homes against opponents, including the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who claim the programs use vouchers that fund "private schools with public dollars."

"Parents should be free to choose the education environment that is best for their child," said Jessica Geroux of Apache Junction, Ariz., on Thursday, when five families filed papers asking the Arizona Supreme Court to support the Scholarships for Pupils With Disabilities Program and Displaced Pupils Choice Grant Program.

Geroux's six-year-old son, Tyler, has been diagnosed with autism.

"This plan would let us move to another public school district in our area that may run their special education program better or let us seek out schools that specialize in teaching autistic students," she told Cybercast News Service Friday.

Tim Keller, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice, which is representing the families in court, said school choice has helped parents, children and even public schools that benefited from the competition.

"Arizona is the first state to offer school choice to foster children, a population at high risk for falling through the educational cracks," Keller added. "Children in foster care are twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduation and are far more likely to attend an under-performing school than other children."

Thursday's action was made in response to a lawsuit filed on Nov. 14 by a coalition of parents, educators and civil rights groups in Arizona claiming that the programs, which were established by the Republican-led state legislature earlier this year, violate Arizona Constitution provisions that prohibit state funding of religious and other private schools.

"Vouchers for church-run schools are part of a political and ideological crusade, not a plan for education reform," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, which joined the liberal group People for the American Way and several state education associations as plaintiffs in the suit.

"True education reform would not include programs aimed at subsidizing sectarian institutions with taxpayer dollars and abandoning the public schools," she added.

"Vouchers drain money from public schools that don't have enough as it is," said parent Scott Holcomb, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. "These statutes would open the door to wholesale funding of private education with public dollars."

Geroux told Cybercast News Service that she found Holcomb's argument confusing, because "if my son is not going to be at a school, it's not going to get that money anyway."

The new programs, she said, "just take the money that is set aside for each student - which each child has a right to for a good education - and have it follow the child like a backpack to whichever school setting [he or she is in.]"

'Religious bigotry'

At the center of the legal dispute is an amendment to the state constitution that reads: "No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation."

This "Blaine Amendment" was named for James Blaine, who proposed a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution when he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1875. While that effort failed, similar provisions were passed in 37 states, including Arizona.

However, Keller in a Dec. 7 news release pointed to a 1999 Arizona Supreme Court ruling that had upheld the state's individual tax credit for donations to scholarship organizations. That decision, he said, showed that the court "understood that school choice programs aid parents -- not schools, religious or otherwise."

"And the court recognized the Blaine Amendments as a 'clear manifestation of religious bigotry' and refused to strike down school choice on that basis," Keller added.

"Oddly enough, this new lawsuit only challenges those scholarship programs that empower parents to choose a private education," he noted.

"For decades, Arizona has funded private school tuition for children with disabilities whose needs cannot be met by public schools," Keller said. "But under the 'old' voucher program, education bureaucrats decide when private placement is appropriate.

"This lawsuit is not about opposition to vouchers, but rather opposition to shifting power from government to parents," he said.

"Who knows a child's needs best?" Geroux asked. "Some bureaucrat sitting in an office who's maybe never met the child, or the parent, who's raised him and lived with him all his life? Obviously, the parent."

Meetze said the ACLU has opposed voucher programs in several states across the country "through litigation, public education and legislative lobbying," on the grounds the programs "unconstitutionally force taxpayers to fund religious schools and strip much-needed tax dollars away from neighborhood public schools."

Chip Mellor, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice, which calls itself "the nation's leading legal advocate for school choice," saw the situation differently.

"School choice is gaining ground in Arizona and nationwide because it works," Mellor said. "But nearly every advance for educational freedom is met with litigation by those who prefer the status quo.

"We will not let opponents thwart meaningful educational opportunities for Arizona children whose unique needs cry out for help," he added.

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