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Arizona Adopts Variation of Vouchers for Special Ed Students

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Although its private school vouchers for students with disabilities were found unconstitutional, Arizona lawmakers have found another way to pay for special education students' tuition outside of public schools.

On Tuesday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a measure that would allow the parents of students with disabilities to sign up for an "empowerment scholarship" account that would pay for tuition, tutoring, online courses, classes at home, or college classes while they are still in high school—or the money could be saved and used to attend college full time after graduation.

Each account would be worth 90 percent of what a public school would have received to educate a particular student. That varies by child. A state senate analysis of the bill said that students with mild disabilities may cost the state about $5,000 a year while students with the greatest needs may cost about $30,000 a year.

All of the state's 17,000 students with disabilities will be eligible to sign up for an account in the first year of the program, the senate analysis said, as long as they are full-time students who attended a public school for at least 100 days of the previous fiscal year or were receiving a scholarship from a school tuition organization. School tuition organizations are funded by donations made in exchange for tax credits. Also Tuesday, the governor vetoed a bill that would have expanded the tax-credit program.

The empowerment scholarship law requires the state to perform random audits of the education savings accounts to ensure the money is being spent appropriately.

The Arizona Education Association, the teachers union that challenged the Arizona voucher law eventually found unconstitutional, said it is still weighing whether to file suit over this variation of that law.

Several other states allow public money to be used on private school tuition for students with disabilities, including Florida, Georgia and Utah. Ohio allows students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to use a voucher for education services from a private provider.

Earlier this month, as my colleague wrote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that taxpayers may not challenge an Arizona tax credit benefiting religious schools. The April 4 ruling was in response to a challenge to Arizona's 14-year-old tuition-aid plan, under which taxpayers can receive a dollar-for-dollar credit of up to $500 on their state income taxes for donations to school tuition organizations, which can limit their grants to students who will use them at religious schools.

Meanwhile, Florida is considering expanding its program to include more students in its voucher program for students with disabilities.

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