Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, AZ), December 9, 2008
Today the educational future of special-needs and foster children is in the hands of the Arizona Supreme Court. At issue is the constitutionality of state scholarships that parents such as Brendan and Susan Fay of Tucson can use to send their children to the private schools that best meet their individual needs.
For three years the Fays struggled to help their daughter Rebecca get the education she needed at her local public school.
“We were devastated. We thought the public school system would do the best that they could do for Rebecca,” explained the Fays in a statement to the court.
“Instead, we discovered that their philosophy was that Rebecca was not capable of learning . . . They were not teaching her at all.”
Rebecca’s school-appointed aide was frequently absent or too busy, so Mrs. Fay became a certified aide. Rebecca also never received the occupational therapy she needed and was given only a fraction of the specialized instruction spelled out in her education plan.
When Rebecca was in fifth grade, the school principal told Mrs. Fay she was no longer welcome to volunteer on behalf of her daughter and when her daughter was publicly humiliated by her teacher later that day, that was the final straw. But the Fays had recourse.
In 2006, Gov. Janet Napolitano signed into law the Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program and the Displaced Pupils Grant Program. The Fays used one of those scholarships to send Rebecca to a private school where she is flourishing. She is not alone. Thanks to that law, nearly 500 Arizona special-needs and foster children are now in schools that are working for them.
In January 2007, however, the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, along with the ACLU of Arizona and People for the American Way, among others, challenged the programs.
Opponents claim that scholarships like Rebecca’s aid private schools, not students. They fail to mention that Arizona public schools use public funds to send more than 1,000 students to private schools each year when they cannot provide the programs and services those students need. The real issue for school choice opponents isn’t principle. It’s power.
Decades of Arizona Supreme Court precedent supports such educational options for families, and for nearly a century the U.S. Supreme Court has also reaffirmed “the power of parents to control the education of their own.” Both courts have consistently rejected the assumption, apparently embraced by school choice opponents, that children are mere creatures of the state.
Arizona is a national school choice leader with at least six educational aid programs for more than 22,000 children who choose private and religious schools. These scholarship programs let parents do what Arizona public schools do every day — buy educational services from private schools.
The state Supreme Court will now decide whether parents like the Fays or public school districts hold ultimate control over Arizona children. Opponents of the Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities and the Displaced Pupils Grant Programs argue that education bureaucrats know better than parents when it comes to children’s education. The Fays’ ordeal suggests otherwise.
Write to Vicki E. Murray at mailto:[email protected]