Vouchers divert public school funds

A judge's ruling in favor of two new state voucher programs intended to provide money to send foster and disabled children to private schools is not expected to have much bearing on the Kingman Unified School District.

"I don't think it will have a huge impact on us," Betsy Parker, assistant superintendent, said Thursday. "There are not a lot of private schools in this area, and it's often difficult for them to provide services for extremely disabled children."

On Wednesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Bethany Hicks agreed with voucher program supporters that grants issued to parents are not appropriations of state money for religious worship or instruction and don't support any religious organization.

She also ruled voucher programs don't keep the state from providing the constitutionally mandated "general and uniform public school system."

"As long as they don't promote religion with taxpayer dollars, they're OK," Parker said.

She expects Hicks' ruling to stand up to legal challenges promised all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court by voucher opponents.

Organizations announcing intent to challenge the ruling include the Arizona Education Association, American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, and Arizona School Boards Association.

John Wright, president of the AEA, and Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the ASBA, issued statements almost as soon as Hicks' ruling was announced.

"We have known from the beginning that this case would be settled by the Arizona Supreme Court," Contreras said. "We are upset by the decision today but are ready to fight for Arizona's students in the highest court in Arizona."

Wright was more critical.

"Today's ruling is a shocking departure from the intent of the Arizona Constitution," Wright said.

"Arizona's public schools ensure that all children in Arizona have an equal opportunity to receive a quality public education. Giving away taxpayer's dollars to private and religious schools strips away resources necessary to achieving this goal."

Tim Keller, a lawyer for voucher advocates and an official with the Institute of Justice, said the judge's ruling should encourage opponents of "school choice" to back off.

He added voucher opponents are waging "frivolous battles."

Keller said past rulings have consistently held that the programs are permissible because they don't promote religion.

"Rather than requiring a religious exclusion, they have to require religious neutrality," he said.

Wright fired back that further challenges to the ruling are not frivolous. They're justice.

"Voucher programs do promote religion when parents use vouchers to send their children to religious schools," Wright told the Associated Press. "We've got a very compelling case that these are not (neutral on religion)."

A voucher program for disabled students already is in effect. Another for foster children is expected to begin next fiscal year. Each is capped at $2.5 million.

I agree with Parker on the point that private schools can't offer the scope of services found in public schools. That alone keeps students numbers small in those private schools.

I also agree with Wright and the others challenging Hicks' ruling. Even if the money for vouchers comes out of grants, it's still funding that could be applied to further improve public schools being diverted elsewhere.

I hope the AEA, ASBA and ACLU of Arizona will succeed in their legal challenge.