Arizona’s teachers unions are fighting the expansion of a program benefitting families of disabled children.
The Arizona Supreme Court last week declined to hear the appeal of the teacher’s union to rule the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account Program (ESA) as unconstitutional. The appeals court’s ruling now stands, paving the way for more children to enroll in the program.
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The ESA currently allows families of disabled students to attend the school of their choosing. They are allotted 90 percent of the funding that would have been spent for their education at a public school.
In addition to private school tuition, the ESA allows parents to pay for tutors, educational therapies, and purchase curriculum for use at home, explained Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter and lead attorney defending the program in court.
The state’s unions have opposed the ESA since it was introduced three years ago. The Arizona Federation of Teachers (AFT) claims the program guts funding from public schools and diverts taxpayer funds to private schools. They called the program a "boondoggle" and said it is "unconscionable" that legislators would approve of it.
Arizona House Democrats have sided with the union, saying it guts public school funding. Rep. Eric Meyer (D., Paradise Valley) called those in favor of allowing disabled children the school of their choice "extremists" earlier this month.
Neither Meyer nor the AFT responded to requests for comment.
State Sen. Kimberly Yee (R., Phoenix) recently introduced legislation to expand the ESA program to school children on the free or reduced lunch program, siblings of the disabled, and children of first responders. That bill has passed the State Senate Rules Committee.
The state’s teachers union is fighting the expansion.
"We have received some opposition from the same group that has never supported the ESA program—school districts and the teacher’s union," Yee said in a phone interview.
Yee said her bill would not increase the funding cap currently in the program.
"We have always believed these are taxpayer dollars," Yee said. "Taxpayer dollars belong to Arizona taxpayers, and they have every right to place their child in the school that meets their needs."
Yee said the funding for ESA is not the "legislator’s money, it’s not the school district’s money, it’s the taxpayer’s," Yee said. The ESA is "allowing parents to place their child in an environment that best meets their child’s needs."
Yee complained that media reports on the program have been one-sided, with news reports stating that the legislature "should be putting more money into the public school system."
Yee explained ESA does not cut funding for the school system.
"When we have all these options, we are able to have great school choice options," Yee said. "It doesn’t mean we don’t support the traditional neighborhood school."
Parents who have enrolled in the program credit ESA for turning their children’s lives around.
Kathy Visser, whose 9-year-old son Jordan has cerebral palsy, said the empowerment scholarship award has been the "biggest blessing we could have ever imagined." She said the program is a "godsend. It’s lifted us out of a life of hell."
After struggling in public and private schools Visser chose the best option for her son—one-on-one teaching at home. She is now able to hire certified teachers and continually update his curriculum as challenges surface. Jordan has made more progress academically after being removed from public school, she said.
Visser, a former teacher, does not understand the union’s opposition to ESA.
"Are they for the teachers or are they for educating the students?" she asked. "I don’t understand where the threat is. Most teachers are about educating the students."
Proponents of the program believe that more families will utilize it now that the Arizona Supreme Court has refused to strike it down.
"Now that the constitutional cloud has been fully lifted, there is no doubt that more families will apply and take advantage of the ESA program's flexibility to create a genuinely individualized education," IJ’s Keller said in an email to the Washington Free Beacon.