The Arizona Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a case that will decide the validity of two of Arizona's most promising education programs. The programs allow parents of disabled and foster-care children to choose the best schools for their children.
In May, the Arizona Court of Appeals struck down both programs because they purportedly violated the Arizona Constitution's prohibition against aid to religious organizations. Now the Arizona Supreme Court has the opportunity to overturn that mistake. Special-needs children require attention that is often lacking in public schools. That is why states such as Florida, Utah, Georgia and Ohio have decided that parents should have the ability to choose schools that are most capable of meeting their disabled children's needs.
The question is often raised, "Why not just improve the public schools?" Are vouchers really the answer? Yes - because private schools offer greater assurance of accountability.
The Individual with Disabilities Act requires public schools to provide a minimum level of services for disabled students. However, this top-down compliance model only requires a minimum level of competence from Arizona public schools.
Thus, while it is unfortunate, it is unsurprising when the Arizona Center for Disability Law wrote, in a brief to the Arizona Supreme Court, that their "30-plus years of experience in special education advocacy indicates that many public school districts have failed, and continue to fail, Arizona's special needs children and their families."
In contrast, private schools that receive vouchers are held accountable to parents, who can remove their children from the schools that fail to address their children's special needs. The results for states with vouchers for special-needs children have been decidedly positive.
In Florida, for example, the McKay Scholarship Program was founded in 1999 on a provisional basis providing educational vouchers to less than 1,000 special-needs students in 100 private schools. Now, the program serves over 18,000 special-needs children in more than 800 private schools. McKay schools outperform their public school counterparts in every category: smaller class sizes, academic progress, behavioral progress, parental satisfaction, etc.
The Arizona Legislature has tried to invigorate Arizona's public schools in much the same way as Florida did with the McKay program. By creating these voucher programs, the Arizona Legislature made the decision that Arizonans no longer have to wait for government institutions to provide special-needs children the education they deserve.
Where the public schools fail to act, parents can remove their child and place her in a private school better able to accommodate her needs.
Contrary to the critics, these special-needs programs do not amount to state funding of churches. No tax dollars go to religious schools without the individual choices of parents. These parents independently decided that their special needs children deserve a better education than the public schools were providing.
It was a sad day for families of special needs children last May when the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that they could no longer send their children to the schools that best fit their child's needs. Here's to hoping the Arizona Supreme Court rectifies gives them a happy day - soon.
Joshua Thompson an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation (www.pacificlegal.org), submitted a brief supporting the school-choice program on behalf of the Arizona Autism Coalition.