Special needs scholarship money challenged by school board

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PHOENIX – Parents of special needs children are eligible for thousands of dollars to put towards education thanks to a new state law but the Arizona School Board wants to block the disbursements arguing it’s unconstitutional.

Ten-year-old Lexie Weck is thriving at St. Dominic Savio Academy in Tempe. It’s a private school designed for special needs children.

For Lexie, who struggles with cerebral palsy and autism, it’s a perfect fit. According to Lexie’s mom, Andrea, “If she had stayed in the public school system, it was just babysitting."

Andrea Weck-Robertson hopes to continue here with the help of a new scholarship fund available to parents of special needs children. It’s called the Empowerment Scholarship Account. The state law making it available took effect last week.

Tim Keller with the Institute for Justice explains how the scholarship fund works. "A parent of a child with special needs can apply to the state and get 90 percent of the funds that the state would have spent on that child in a public school, have it deposited into an education savings account and then the parent can use those funds however they wish to buy educational services for their children."

The only caveat with the scholarship fund is that the public money can’t be used for public school.

Don Peters represents the Arizona School Board Association. "I think it's wrong, I think most Americans think it's wrong."

The Arizona School Board Association believes the Empowerment Account is unconstitutional and has filed a request with the Attorney General to block it.

Peters contends, "If the state can pay for funding in a private or religious school for a disabled kid, why can't it pay for any other kid. There is no legal distinction."

In other words, the law doesn’t see the difference between children and allows for all children to be given the same opportunities.

As far as the school board is concerned, the public money should be used for public schools. 

Peters says, "They're struggling to find money right now and the last thing they need is to have more money diverted away."

Nevertheless Keller argues, "It's not the public schools money. The money is set aside to educate children."

The Institute for Justice plans to defend parents of special needs children if the law is challenged.

Weck-Robertson says, "It's almost like saying, ‘you can't do what's right for your child. You have no say in what happens to your child.’ It's the scariest, most awful feeling in the whole world. It's devastating."

According to Keller, "If parents lose this program many of them will be forced to put their child back into public schools that are not meeting their unique educational needs.”

However Peters believes the answer is to revolutionize the entire public school system. "If parents can say here is what a private school is doing that is really working for some kids, why don't we do this in public school, I could not agree more. Let's go to the legislature together and say ‘this is working over here, let's make sure it's available to every special needs child in public schools as well’."

The question is: Can children like Lexie afford to wait for that to happen?

The attorney general has until the end of August to act on the school board’s request.

In the meantime, parents who want to quality for the program must apply by July 27. For information about the account, visit, http://www.ade.az.gov/ess/ESAs/.