Patterson: School choice foes stack deck against disabled students - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Patterson: School choice foes stack deck against disabled students

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Posted: Saturday, June 21, 2008 7:15 pm | Updated: 9:30 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Not long ago, a 6-year-old boy from Gilbert named Max was headed nowhere. Diagnosed as autistic, he suffered constant emotional meltdowns in school and was taunted and teased by fellow students. He finally ended up in a class with mentally disabled children.

Max’s public school demanded that he take medication, but he was still regressing academically and emotionally.

Max’s fortunes improved dramatically when he was awarded a scholarship for Pupils with Disabilities to attend L.I.F.E., a specialized private school.

Today, Max does triple-digit multiplication. He is learning techniques to control his emotions. He can talk to people, answer questions and is off all medications. Not only is his family confident in taking him to Sea World this summer, but they feel college, employment, maybe even a family of his own are realistic hopes for Max.

But Max is just one of hundreds of Arizona children who have newfound hope in their lives from a Disability Scholarship, a ground-breaking program which permits the parents of disabled students to select the school most suitable for them. Ryan, a 7-year-old from Maricopa, suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy in addition to autism. His desperate parents enrolled him in four schools in three years, trying unsuccessfully to find something that could help Ryan. Today, at Grayshawk Academy, Ryan is flourishing in a safe yet stimulating environment. He’s acquiring verbal skills and can write his name. Ryan is finally playing with other children and has even made some friends. Everyone’s happy.

Well, not everyone. In fact, the future of the scholarship program is under serious threat from people who are accustomed to controlling the money and power in public education and aren’t thrilled about sharing it with parents.

It started with a lawsuit brought against the Disability Scholarships, as well as a similar program for foster children, by the usual crowd — teachers unions, school administrators, ACLU, People for the American Way.

Nothing unusual there. School choice legislation is always challenged in court by the education monopoly.

This time though, the state Court of Appeals held the program unconstitutional, based on the so called Blaine Amendment to the state constitution, which prohibits “appropriation of public money in aid of … private or sectarian schools.” Historically the product of anti-Catholic bigotry, it’s a big favorite of today’s “liberals.” Still, previous court decisions have established that programs like Disability Scholarships, in which the parents choose the school, have the purpose of aiding students, not schools. The schools are merely vendors, like hospitals or others from whom the state purchases services.

Moreover, school districts often provide tuition for students, including disabled students, to attend private schools. How is it possibly legal for school officials to use the same monies to send the same students to the same schools, but “unconstitutional” for parents to make the decision?

Next, Superintendent for Public Instruction Tom Horne announced that, based on advice from Attorney General Terry Goddard’s office, no further Disability Scholarships would be funded, even though the case was immediately appealed. It’s puzzling because Horne has been willing to resist Goddard’s apparently politicized “advice” in the past, as in the English Language Learner funding case. Still, his decision threatens to dash the newfound hopes of all the Max’s and Ryans out there. Distraught parents literally don’t know what to do.

Maybe the worst news of all is that the scholarship programs are “on the table” in the current budget negotiations. According to insiders, it “doesn’t look good.” The anti–choice crowd has been pressing to revoke this program ever since it became part of the negotiated budget agreement two years ago.

Nobody knows if the costs of the scholarships are offset by the public schools savings. But that really doesn’t matter to the special-interest groups desperate to get their power back before the programs grow and become even more successful and harder to dismantle.

Max’s and Ryan’s parents aren’t that political, they just want an opportunity for a good life for their children. But they’re in a tough spot. In this case, the appeals court, the attorney general, the state superintendent, the ACLU and powerful decision makers in state government have all weighed in against them. Say a little prayer.

East Valley resident Tom Patterson (pattersontomc@cox.net) is a retired emergency room physician and former state senator.

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