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Arizona education organizations hoping lawsuit will block new law

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PHOENIX – The Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona Education Association have sued to block a new law that provides publicly funded scholarships that allow children with disabilities to attend private schools.

In the lawsuit filed Monday in Maricopa County Superior Court, the groups contend that the law is unconstitutional because it provides public funds to private or religious institutions.

“The issue, of course, is the precedent this sets,” said Chris Thomas, director of legal services at the Arizona School Board Association.

The law, championed by Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, and House Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, allows parents to put 90 percent of state money allocated for a disabled child’s education into what amounts to a flexible-spending account that can be put toward private school or private education services such as speech or occupational therapy. The money also may be saved for college.

The law revives key provisions of a state disability vouchers program struck down by a court in 2009.

Lesko said the legislation was deemed constitutional by attorneys who reviewed it and that she fears what would become of children benefiting from the law.

“Otherwise it will be very disruptive to them,” Lesko said in a phone interview.

The groups contend that the law, which went into effect July 20, also is invalid because it requires parents to waive children’s constitutional rights to public education in order to enroll them in other programs.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts totaling about $1 million have been awarded to 86 children for this school year, said Andrew LeFevre, an Arizona Department of Education spokesman.

“This has real impact on real children,” LeFevre said in a phone interview.

LeFevre said while Superintendent John Huppenthal supports the law, as a state leader he must also uphold it.

Other plaintiffs include the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Sharon Niehaus, a member of the Governing Board of Continental Elementary School District in Green Valley.

Several calls to the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Association of School Business Officials weren’t returned by late Tuesday afternoon.

Clint Bolick, director of the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation at the Goldwater Institute, an independent watchdog group that promotes limited government and free enterprise, said the law is constitutional because parents can use the scholarship money in any educational institution.

“The choice is entirely in the hands of parents, and the range of options is very broad,” Bolick said. “So I think that we’ve cured the constitutional deficiency.”