Giving parents vouchers that they can use to pay for private school tuition or other educational services for their children does not violate the Arizona Constitution. On Friday (March 21), the Arizona Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to a state appeals court decision finding Arizona’s education savings accounts constitutional. The Arizona teachers union had challenged the law, claiming it violated both the state constitution’s prohibition against using public monies for private schools and the constitution’s prohibition against using public monies to support religious worship or teaching.
The program, officially called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, gives parents a portion of the money that the state would have spent on their child in traditional public schools. The parents can spend that money on a variety of education services and products, including tutors, textbooks, online classes, and private school tuition. Parents can also accumulate savings in the accounts and apply the funds to a college savings plan. Currently, children that have special needs, attend failing schools, are adopted out of the state foster system, or whose parents are on active duty in the military are eligible for the program.
In October, the Arizona Court of Appeals had upheld the law. The court said:
The ESA does not result in an appropriation of public money to encourage the preference of one religion over another, or religion per se over no religion. Any aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents. The parents are given numerous ways in which they can educate their children suited to the needs of each child with no preference given to religious or nonreligious schools or programs. [Niehaus v. Huppenthal, Opinion of the Court of Appeals of the State of Arizona, October 1, 2013]
By declining to hear an appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision. The Goldwater Institute came up with the idea of Education Savings Accounts following a 2009 court decision finding a school voucher program unconstitutional. On Friday’s decision, Clint Bolick, vice president of litigation for the Goldwater Institute said: “The constitutional cloud has been lifted from the nation's most innovative educational opportunity program. Arizona is blazing the trail to expand choice and competition in education.” [Goldwater Institute, March 21]
The Institute for Justice, representing several of the families participating in the program, intervened in the case to defend the law. Institute for Justice President and General Counsel William Mellor said: “Today’s decision finally and fully vindicates the ESA Program’s constitutionality. The Court of Appeals’ decision now joins a growing list of state courts, including Ohio, Wisconsin, and most recently Indiana, to vindicate the parental right to choose the educational environment that best suits their child’s unique educational needs.” [Institute for Justice, March 21]
[See also: “Giving Parents Choices: How Education Savings Accounts Can Give Every Child a Better Education,” by Jonathan Butcher, The Insider, Summer 2013]