Education Savings Accounts Deemed Constitutional by Arizona Supreme Court

The Arizona Supreme Court has declared Arizona’s education saving accounts (ESA) constitutional.

supreme-court-facadeThis decision ends the fight over ESA constitutionality and has affirmed Arizona parents’ ability to customize their children’s education.

In October, the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the ESA school choice option does not violate the Arizona state constitution. The court ruled that the “ESA is neutral in all respects toward religion and directs aid to a broad class of individuals without reference to religion.” Furthermore, “the specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools”—meaning the money funds and follows the student and is not given directly to any particular institution, religious or otherwise. But the plaintiffs still sought an appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.

This afternoon, the Arizona Supreme Court refused the appeal, upholding the appellate court’s decision.

Education savings accounts are the new frontier of school choice. Arizona’s innovative program—called Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts—is the first of its kind, although other states are taking note.

With an ESA, parents of qualified students can use 90 percent of what the state would have spent on the child in the public system, with funds deposited directly into a savings account for the parents’ use. This “education debit-card,” enables parents to use their ESA funds to pay for a variety of pre-approved educational services and providers, such as private school tuition and fees, educational therapy services, textbooks, private online learning, and tutoring. Parents can also roll over unused ESA funds from year to year, and funds can also be rolled into a college savings plan to pay for college courses and textbooks.

Originally limited to children with special needs, the program was expanded in 2012 and 2013 to include children from low-income families in underperforming schools, children from active-duty military families, and children in foster care, thereby making 220,000 Arizona children eligible for ESAs.

A recent Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice study by Heritage fellow Lindsey Burke found that more than one-third of Arizona families use their ESAs to fully customize their children’s educational experience. The Institute for Justice, which represented the families in the case, cited Burke’s study in the Supreme Court brief opposing review.

“We found that with the ESA we have choices on where we can actually take our son. There weren’t those opportunities before,” says mother Katherine Visser, who customizes her son Jordan’s education with an ESA.

The true winners of this ESA victory at the Arizona Supreme Court are the families who can continue to customize their child’s education with ESAs.

As Marylyn Deyoung, whose daughter Miranda goes to Gateway Academy with an ESA says, “You can live eight days without food, four days without water, but not one day without hope. And that’s what the scholarship brings.” Read more ESA stories here and here.

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