Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Phoenix Rising…

Phoenix’s East Valley Tribune has an op-ed this week that makes a lot of sense. In Missouri, we should watch Arizona’s school choice case go to state supreme court. We have a stringent so-called Blaine amendment that severely hampers the state from providing any support at all to a religiously-affiliated school.

Many anti-school choice camps have argued that Blaine Amendments (a stricter interpretation of the Establishment Clause found in many state Constitutions) prohibit a state from offering any sort of voucher or tax credit as a means of school choice because public money may come in contact with a religiously affiliated school.

For a long time I’ve believed that line of thinking constitutes a restriction on a family’s freedom of religion: making a family’s wish to raise their child in a school that reflects their beliefs contingent on their ability to pay for it. Pell Grant, the G.I. Bill and student loans are also state money, and yet do not restrict religious schools from receiving those dollars. I can think of plenty of government grants that go to private and religious organizations who are serving an important public interest. We’ve been led to believe that k-12 schooling is somehow different when in fact there are plenty of similar areas where religion and the state may touch shoulders—no excessive entanglement, just cross-purposes driven by concerned citizens. Agostini v. Felton in 1997 sets an interesting precedent about private and secular schools, if like me you geek out on case law.

The op-ed makes the case that because the aid goes to the parent and not to the school, it is not in violation of the Blaine Amendment.

The court has held that in deciding Blaine issues, judges must determine who the “true beneficiary” of a state program is, and in the case of school choice, the court said, the beneficiaries are families, not private schools. The groups who sued to halt the voucher programs — the ACLU Foundation of Arizona, People for the American Way, and the Arizona Education Association — don’t want the public to know who the true beneficiaries are.
What these opponents have accomplished is to rob a small number of disabled students (117 were enrolled this year) and foster children (140 students) and their parents of their civil rights in order to make a political point, and push a false interpretation of the state’s constitution.
Nor have they been intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that the state of Arizona has for years run a school choice program for disabled children very much like the voucher program in question, under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. The only difference is that the state assigns special-needs children to the IDEA programs that bureaucrats feel will best serve them. Under the voucher program, parents choose.
That suggests what lies at the heart of this issue: a struggle for power and control. Those who run the government school monopoly want to keep their power instead of sharing it with taxpayers and parents who might not choose their services. The idea of competition can be a scary thing, especially for groups that already enjoy captive audiences. Arizona, which operates four distinct school choice programs, has shown choice really works — and that’s why these groups are targeting it.

The decision is headed to the Arizona Supreme Court on appeal. Since the lower court contradicted itself regarding the state constitution’s Blaine Amendments — saying the programs “aid” religious schools but do not “support” them — it’s reasonable to expect the high court to abide by its own precedents and recognize this case for what it is: a grab for additional power by a fat and callous educational establishment.

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