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Suit Challenges Arizona Tuition Aid for Students With Disabilities

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The largest Arizona teachers' union and the state's school boards association filed suit this week over a new scholarship program that pays private school tuition for children with disabilities.

The program, created earlier this year, allows parents of children with disabilities to sign up for an "empowerment scholarship" account that pays for tuition, tutoring, online courses, classes at home, or college classes while they are still in high school. Or, parents can save the money and students can use it to attend college full time after graduation. Each account is worth 90 percent of what a public school would have received to educate a particular student, an amount that varies by child.

I'm still looking for the lawsuit filed this week, but in a letter earlier this year, attorney Donald Peters said some problems with Arizona's new law include that parents have to waive their children's right to a public school education and it authorizes the transfer of public funds to private schools. Some of those schools may be religious schools, he wrote, noting that the Arizona constitution states that "no public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment."

However in April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that taxpayers may not challenge an unrelated 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.

According to the American Federation for Children, which supports empowerment scholarship program, 167 families signed up for the new vouchers, which were coincidentally signed into law in April. The AFC is an advocacy group that supports school choice.

The ACF said the lawsuit by the Arizona Education Association and the Arizona Association of School Boards would leave the students already enrolled in private schools confused about the status of their current schooling.

In a statement, state Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican, agreed.

"Filing a lawsuit, after these students with special needs have been in school for almost two months, is terribly disruptive. Special needs children require stability—placing their education in limbo in mid-semester demonstrates a total lack of compassion."

The conservative Goldwater Institute said it supports the scholarship program along with the ACF.

"These scholarship accounts allow parents to direct their children's education funds in the way that best meets their individual needs," said Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute's litigation director, in a statement.

In a July letter, he outlined a defense to the arguments Peters made, noting that Arizona's constitution "assures to every child a basic education." He said the new scholarships simply expand the ways children can access that education.

He went on to say that the scholarship money won't be exclusively spent on private schools, religious or otherwise. He notes that a welfare check, public pension or paycheck could be used entirely for religious purposes also, and the state constitution only prohibits the use of public funds for religious instruction.

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