Arizona Voucher Programs Lose in State's High Court

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The Arizona Supreme Court has struck down two specialized voucher programs, ruling that they violate the state constitution's prohibition on providing state aid to private religious and secular schools.

As a result of the March 25 decision, the estimated 450 students in the two programs—one for students with disabilities and another for those living in foster care—will lose their state-funded scholarships at the end of the current academic year.

Supporters of the two voucher plans, enacted in 2006, argued that students and their parents were the true beneficiaries of the programs. But the five-member Arizona Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling in Cain v. Horne said the programs still violated constitutional restrictions.

"These programs transfer state funds directly from the state treasury to private schools," Justice Michael D. Ryan wrote. "That the checks or warrants first pass through the hands of parents is immaterial."

The state court of appeals overturned a trial judge last year and ruled in May that the programs were unconstitutional. A state Supreme Court justice let the programs continue during the current school year while the decision was pending at the high court.

The legal challenge was mounted by groups including the Arizona Education Association—an affiliate of the National Education Association—the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, and the Arizona School Boards Association.

"We thought the language of the Arizona Constitution was clear, and we thought that if the court applied that language, this would be the result,” said Donald M. Peters, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

But Timothy D. Keller, the executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice, and the lead attorney for the defendants, said, "the court got this one wrong on both the law and the facts."

He said "this is not the end of the line for school choice in Arizona," adding that families still might be able to receive aid through one of the state's existing tax-credit-funded scholarship programs.

Mr. Keller also said he did not view the Arizona ruling as having significant implications for voucher battles in other states.

Vol. 28, Issue 27, Page 22

Published in Print: April 1, 2009, as Arizona Voucher Programs Lose in State’s High Court
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