Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

March 25, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

School Vouchers


  • A discussion about the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision to strike-down Arizona’s school voucher programs for foster kids and children with disabilities. Supreme Court Ruling
Guests:
  • Tim Keller - Executive Director, Arizona Chapter of the Institute for Justice
  • Andrew Morrill - Vice-President,Arizona Education Association
Category: Education

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Good evening welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled today that the state school voucher programs are unconstitutional. The programs, enacted by the legislature in 2006, use state dollars to help disabled and foster kids attend private schools. The court says the programs violate article 9, section 10 of Arizona's constitution, known as the aide clause, which states that no tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church or private or sectarian school. In its 21-page opinion the court said the voucher programs do precisely what the aid clause prohibits. These programs transfer state funds directly from the state treasury to private schools. Here now to talk about the court’s decision is Tim Keller, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice. He's an attorney who represents families who benefit from Arizona's voucher programs. Also joining us is Andrew Morrill, vice-president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest educators' organization. The AEA is one of several plaintiffs that had challenged the state's voucher programs. Good to have you back on the program.

Tim Keller:
Thank you.

Andrew Morrill:
Good to be here.

Ted Simons:
Tim, let’s start with you. Reaction to the court decision?

Tim Keller:
The initial reaction is, this is not the end of the line for school choice in Arizona. We're going to look at every single legal and policy option available to us and initially to help these particularly vulnerable students stay in the private schools that have been benefiting them so much for the past two years.

Ted Simons:
Specifically, the court says these are aiding private and religious schools, and the constitution specifically says you can't do that. Why is the court wrong?

Tim Keller:
Well, we do believe the court is wrong on both the law and the facts. The school choice programs are not designed to aid schools or institutions. They are designed to aid individuals. They help families to go out and choose the best available education regardless of whether that education is in public school or private school.

Ted Simons:
Andrew, as far as the idea that it don't help schools, it helps individual parents making choices regarding education. Didn't fly with the courts.

Andrew Morrill:
Didn't fly at all.

Ted Simons:
Why not?

Andrew Morrill:
Their ruling was crystal clear. A unanimous decision. Probably because in fact the money does aid schools, schools that accept students. Here's what we know is true in Arizona, just as it was 24 hours ago. Arizona is the choice friendly state in the country. Arizona parents have more forms of choice at their disposal, even tonight upon the ruling, than just about any other state. They can still send students to private schools; they can still contract for services for special needs students with a public school shepherding the overall education. They can still choose the district school or a private school of their choice. What the Supreme Court said was more on the funding. Certain funding, what wasn't going to be allowed -- public funds for private schools wasn't to be allowed.

Ted Simons:
That being said, with all those options and choices, why is this choice not good? Why is it wrong for parents to have this particular choice?

Andrew Morrill:
Well, it's certainly wrong in the eyes of the majority of Arizona voters, and it's wrong on -- I guess the court ruled on matters of law and constitution. We'll take it on a matter of principle. Vouchers still amount to a school accountability waiver. You're using public funds in an opt-out system. Private schools do not have to take the AIMS test or administer the test to their students, public schools do. Private schools do not have to follow federal mandates for an IEP or Individual Education Plan for special needs students. They don't fall under IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They don't have to open their books. Their transparency to the greater public, public schools do. It's a matter of accountability and transparency, and these are waivers in use of public funds.

Ted Simons:
Waivers in use of public funds. Comment, please.

Tim Keller:
Absolutely not. The programs make the schools accountable to the one person who is most important to be accountable to, i.e., the parent who chooses that school. And even though Arizona is in fact a leader in choice, there's one choice that they can't make, that is the same choice public school districts make every day. Arizona law allows public school districts to take these same children with disabilities, place them in private schools and use state funds to pay the tuition.

Ted Simons:
But it's still funneled through the public education system. Correct?

Tim Keller:
That is correct. But it's state dollars paying private school tuition. Under the court's reasoning today, what the public school districts do every day is unconstitutional. And many other school choice programs in Arizona will be jeopardized by this program, particularly at the higher ed level.

Ted Simons:
Why is it okay for the state to do something that the court says parents can't?

Andrew Morrill:
In point of fact, not many schools do. It's the request of parents under individual education plan that the federal government mandates and when, and the cases are rare, when a public school cannot provide a service that can be provided by an outside private resource, funding can go to that resource on a contract ad hoc basis, the school retains overall stewardship for education of the student, and in fact, most of the time it's not a private school that picks up that service. Most of the time it's a private provider for a special needs student. More of a facility outside a private school. The real fact is, private schools are not well set up in the main to educate special needs students. That's why you don't see a tremendously large population of special needs students in Arizona's private schools.

Ted Simons:
If the public school system can essentially do a better, wider-ranging job of doing what Andrew mentioned, why is that not a better idea than going forward with this private school option?

Tim Keller:
The parents I represent would tell you what they received in the public school system was little more than baby-sitting. And what they've been able to find in the private sector at their private schools have been teachers dedicated not just to keeping their child safe for a period of time, but actually learning what their child needs to know in order to learn and succeed. We've seen tremendous gains, both academically and socially, in children that before they were a part of the program, weren't even speaking in some instances.

Ted Simons:
There has been some talk this issue was set up to be a test case in front of the Supreme Court, in front of the highest court that you could find, and that these were sympathetic students that would help your cause. Your comments?

Tim Keller:
That's absolutely not true. The state legislature saw an opportunity to do something beneficial for some of Arizona's most vulnerable special needs students and created a program designed to assist them. That is what --

Ted Simons:
Okay. But allowing these children to go to specialized schools, how does that threaten government neutrality? Is it that much of a threat?

Andrew Morrill:
Here's the real issue behind all of this. The Supreme Court in Arizona has ruled unanimously, and if the book on vouchers hasn't closed, at least the current chapter has. It's not so much a threat as it is a principle of fairness. What is fair for every student in Arizona schools? Private or public. If we have identified certain things that some private schools offer to students, why are we not building a system of education that educates every student according to those services? Why are we still tinkering around the edges and figuring out an opt-out mechanism for some students? I don't know a teacher I've ever met who would walk around his classroom and pick out those students that he or she thought deserved the best education. Let's build a system that educates every student to the highest ideals. We can do it, we can start today.

Ted Simons:
Very quickly, why -- the folks you represent, your group, why are they not working with public schools, if there is a specialized private school that offers something different or special, why aren't they working to get that more into the public schools?

Tim Keller:
My clients are not anti-public school. But what they are is pro-education. And education is not a one-size-fits all product. It takes a wide range of methods to properly educate students and every parent deserves to have the choice to choose the school that will best meet their child's unique educational needs, regardless of whether it's in a public or private setting.

Ted Simons:
We have to stop it right there. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Tim Keller:
Thank you.

Andrew Morrill:
Thanks.

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