Last year, 5-year-old Lexie Weck couldn’t speak. The words “yes” and “no” meant nothing to the little curly-haired girl with cerebral palsy, autism and mild mental retardation.
And then the Arizona Legislature approved a controversial $2.5 million voucher program that enabled Lexie to attend a private school for children with autism.
And “something clicked,” her mother says.
“She’s signing. She’ll make eye contact now. She’s feeding herself. She’s verbalizing sounds,” Andrea Weck said. “She wants to be in the same room as us. Before, she didn’t want to be anywhere near us.”
Despite the success experienced by the Weck family, Arizona’s new voucher program has remained largely untouched by parents. Just $263,000 — 11 percent of the total the state set aside for the program — has been paid to send 34 children to private schools through the taxpayer-funded Pupils with Disabilities Scholarship Tuition Program.
In contrast, a similar program in Florida, now in its seventh year, provided scholarships to more than 17,000 families last year.
Voucher advocates blame Arizona’s low participation on a lack of publicity, as well as late passage of the program last summer. Some parents have indicated on Internet message boards that they don’t want to use the vouchers until they’re sure the program will pass legal muster in court.
In January, the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way filed an Arizona Supreme Court suit challenging the legality of the program. That suit was rejected, but they refiled it in Maricopa County Superior Court, where arguments are expected to start in early June.
“I’ve talked with so many parents, and they’ve just had it with the public schools,” said Tim Keller, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which is defending the voucher program. “I want to see a quick resolution, because I want parents comfortable with these scholarships.”
Patty McCartney, owner of Chrysalis Academy, where Lexie attends, said another problem is the way the law was written. Only students who have attended a public school the prior year can receive the vouchers.
“That’s one thing about it I wish they would change,” she said. “I have parents here who really struggle to pay tuition.”
Voucher opponents, however, say the low numbers indicate a lack of interest among the special education community.
“It really is a false hope, and not much of a benefit at all for children with disabilities,” said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
Not only are private schools not required to meet certain criteria for teacher training and background checks, he said, but they also are not bound by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act. This law requires public schools to pay for whatever a student’s individual education plan calls for — which can include physical and speech therapy, even specialized busing that costs tens of thousands of dollars.
“A private or religious school ... doesn’t have to do any of that,” Wright said.
Weck, though, credits the voucher program and Chrysalis Academy with helping her find a “different child” in Lexie.
The girl attended a program for special-needs preschoolers in the Scottsdale Unified School District for two years. But as the student-to-teacher ratio grew, so did Weck’s frustration. She knew the next year would mean five or six children for every teacher.
She also wasn’t seeing any progress in her daughter — so she took a leap and enrolled her at Chrysalis Academy in Tempe.
A single mother of three going through a divorce, she didn’t know how she would pay the annual $24,000 tuition. But her parents gave her enough for the first part of the year, and she hoped she’d find a way to pay the rest.
Then McCartney told her about the voucher program.
Now, Lexie is learning sign language at Chrysalis, which provides one teacher for every two students and uses play therapy and positive reinforcement to teach 20-plus autistic children. Lexie can sign words like yes, more, candy, music and crackers.
“She still isn’t speaking, but I know it’s in there. And they’ll find a way to get it out,” Weck said.
The explosive debate over private school vouchers, first introduced in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1990, has resurfaced throughout the country this spring.
Among the education community the debate is strong and polarizing, comparable to the debate over abortion, said Mike Smith, a lobbyist with the Arizona School Administrators Association.
“It’s passionate. People on both sides are absolutely right about the issues. There’s no middle ground, no compromise,” he said. “This is like war.”
While advocates point out vouchers give families more choices, opponents argue they could drain money from the public education system and violate constitutional provisions that prohibit state funds going to religious organizations.
Currently, just four states — Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Utah — aim vouchers specifically at students with disabilities, though 12 more considered similar legislation this spring.
In Utah, the program — if it holds up in a referendum — will expand the voucher program to include all families based on income.
Smith and other voucher opponents fear an expansion could happen here, too.
Lawmakers, Smith said, have “decided in a bizarre way that the best way to get vouchers is by target populations. The belief is, if they get enough of these then there’s critical mass — then they can open the voucher program to everybody.”
This year, however, the programs seem to have gathered little steam in the state Legislature.
Rep. John Nelson, R-Glendale, sponsored the “G.I. Junior” grant program, which would give private school scholarships to children of parents in the armed services, but the bill has languished in a rules committee since early February.
And Rep. Andy Biggs, R- Gilbert, sponsored a universal statewide program, but he later asked a committee chairman not to hear it.
“I think he just felt he didn’t have the support for it this year,” said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa
Some speculate lawmakers want to wait to see if the current voucher program is upheld in court before they expand it.
The legal challenge is based on a section of the state constitution that bars using public funds to aid sectarian schools or religious instruction.
Keller argues vouchers are legal because the money is directed to private schools by parents, not by the state. He also pointed out that school districts have paid to send some disabled children to private schools for years, when they believe those schools can better accommodate the children.
For now, parents seem much more likely to send their children to specialized schools for disabled children rather than religious institutions.
Less than $40,000 of the money approved — 15 percent of the money spent on vouchers this year — has gone to sectarian schools.
“We’d hoped for a Christian school because we’re Christian, but it was never an absolute requirement,” said Mike Clow, whose daughter, Heather, 15, received a voucher this fall to attend Chandler’s Valley Christian High School.
Clow and his wife, Susan, operate the nonprofit “Wings of Love Ministry” and couldn’t afford private school tuition. But their daughter’s emotional disability, he said, was putting her at risk at Maricopa High School.
“The only other option was home schooling, but she really needs that social interaction,” he said.
So he was pleased to find Valley Christian, which is one of the few religious schools that offers a formal specialeducation program.
“(The vouchers) picked up a nice chunk of the tuition,” Clow said. “It was just a godsend.” CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-5635 or email@example.com
Private school vouches
Overall, 34 students use vouchers to attend private schools in Arizona (24 at secular and 10 at religious schools). Three students attend Phoenix and West Valley schools, 14 are in Tucson schools and 17 others attend these East Valley schools:
Chrysalis Academy, Tempe: 6
Gateway Academy, Scottsdale: 4
Grace Community Christian School, Tempe: 1
The Howard S. Gray School, Scottsdale: 2
New Way Learning Academy, Scottsdale: 2
Surrey Garden Christian School, Gilbert: 1
Valley Christian High School, Chandler: 1