Lawmakers in Arizona, where a private-school-voucher program for students with disabilities was found unconstitutional in 2009, are trying a new approach to pay for special education students’ tuition outside of public schools.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a measure into law April 12 that will allow the parents of students with disabilities to sign up for an “empowerment scholarship” account that could be used to pay for tuition, tutoring, online courses, classes at home, or college classes while the students are still in high school. The families could also choose to save the money and use it to help pay for full-time college after the students graduate.
The state will make payments into those accounts equal to 90 percent of what a public school would have received to educate the student. That amount varies based on the child’s disability. A state Senate analysis of the bill showed that for students with mild disabilities, schools are provided about $5,000 a year, while for students with the greatest needs, schools are provided about $30,000 a year.
All of the state’s 17,000 students with disabilities will be eligible for an account starting this fall, as long as they are full-time students who attended a public school for at least 100 days of the previous fiscal year or were receiving a scholarship from a “school tuition organization.” Such organizations in Arizona are funded by donations made in exchange for state income-tax credits.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed a challenge to the tax-credit program by taxpayers who had argued it is unconstitutional because the tuition organizations can limit their grants to students who will use them at religious schools. (“High Court Tax-Credit Ruling Could Offer New Momentum to School Choice Supporters,” April 20, 2011.)
The same day that Gov. Brewer signed the special-education-voucher legislation, she vetoed a bill that would have expanded the tax-credit program.
The new empowerment-scholarship law requires the state to perform random audits of the education savings accounts to ensure the money is being spent properly.
Several other states, including Florida, Georgia, and Utah, allow public money to be used for private school tuition for students with disabilities. Ohio allows students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to use a voucher for education services from a private provider.
The Arizona Education Association, which challenged the earlier Arizona voucher law, is still weighing whether to file suit over the new version.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as Arizona Creates Vouchers for Special Ed. Students