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Arizona Supreme Court: School-Choice Savings Accounts Can Continue

The Arizona Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the state's education savings accounts program, which allows parents to spend what would have been the majority of their child's per-student funding allotment from the state on schools of their choice.

On March 21, the state's highest court declined to review a ruling from last October handed down by the state's Court of Appeals that was in favor of the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The state deposits 90 percent of what would have been funding for one student into an empowerment scholarship account. (According to the Associated Press, each account now receives about $3,000 per student.) Parents, in turn, can use the money on private school tuition, textbooks, savings for college, fees for standardized tests, and the cost of therapy and aide workers for students with special needs.

To be eligible for deposits into the accounts, the student in question must have special needs, be a ward of the juvenile court, or have attended a school given a D or F grade by the state during the prior school year. Students also have to meet other requirements. The number of eligible children has grown rapidly even in the last few years, according to the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Arizona that supports the savings accounts:


Enacted in 2011, the program has been challenged in court by those who say that the program violates the state constitution because it transfers public resources to private or religious public schools. The portion of the constitution in question is what's known as a Blaine Amendment, found in 37 states, which prohibits money raised by the state intended for public schools to be directed to religious schools. Blaine amendments have a controversial history—some say that since the creators of the amendment were targeting Catholic institutions, the amendments should be considered bigoted as well as legally invalid.

Blaine amendments are often at the heart of disputes over school-choice programs like vouchers, with the main question being whether they represent an improper transfer "establishment" of religion by directing public resources to sectarian institutions. 

School boards and the state teachers' union challenged the program in the latest case, while the program was defended by groups that support school choice, as well as by the state. There's a fight brewing in the state about whether to expand the savings account program further. The expansion push can be found in Senate Bill 1236, which would make students receiving free or reduced-price meals eligible for the accounts.

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