Matthew Ladner

Arizona Supreme Court voucher decision a shame

Posted on April 09, 2009 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Matthew Ladner
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Philosopher John Rawls argued that answers to societal problems should be decided as if we lived behind a "veil of ignorance." Behind the veil, no one would know what his or her position in life would be. You would not know whether you would grow up the child of a billionaire or poor in the inner-city. His theory was that this veil creates an incentive to create a path out of the latter, far less desirable, scenario.

While many contest Rawls' philosophy, it has been hugely influential in left-of-center political thinking. Here's a question to consider: Does today's system of public education remotely approach the Rawlsian ideal of providing a path out for the least advantaged?

No, not even close. The recent Arizona Supreme Court decision to eliminate a scholarship program for special needs children provides a terrible example of why.

Andrea Weck is a single mom whose daughter Lexie has multiple disabilities. The disability scholarship program gave Andrea the opportunity to choose a specialized private school for Lexie and she has thrived in it.

Andrea told the East Valley Tribune "something clicked" for Lexie in her new school: "She's signing; she'll make eye contact now. She's feeding herself. She's verbalizing sounds . . . She still isn't speaking, but I know it's in there. And they'll find a way to get it out."

The specialized school Lexie attends is costly. With the scholarship and additional assistance, Andrea was able to get Lexie a much higher quality education.

In short, Lexie Weck is precisely the sort of person that John Rawls was concerned with. In the lottery of life, Lexie drew the straw that no parent would want for his child. Arizona's scholarship program for special needs children helped her, and it did so in a way that didn't hurt anyone else.

Public schools have been complaining for years that they don't get enough money for special needs children. They complain that they have to shift money out of general education into special education. They should hardly complain, therefore, when those same students leave with their inadequate funding.

In Arizona 85 percent of special needs children who qualify for free or reduced lunch can't read by the fourth grade. But Arizona is hardly unique in this regard. In 2001, the conservative Fordham Foundation and the liberal Progressive Policy Institute teamed up to summarize the special education situation: "America's program for youngsters with disabilities has itself developed infirmities, handicaps and special needs of its own ...we are not educating many disabled children to a satisfactory level of skills and knowledge."

The part of the Arizona Constitution that the Arizona Supreme Court used to strike down the scholarship program has a very ugly history. During the 19th century period of heavy Irish, Italian and Polish immigration into the United States, nativist groups such as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan began a campaign against the "Catholic menace," including Catholic schools.

Nativists attempted through the Blaine Amendment to change the United States Constitution to prohibit aid to private schools. After its failure, anti-Catholic forces began requiring Blaine language be included in state constitutions in return for their support for admission into the union. Arizona, which became a state in 1912, included Blaine language in its constitution in order to ease entry.

The U.S. Supreme Court has noted the "shameful pedigree," of Blaine Amendments. Florida adopted its version of Blaine in an 1885 constitutional convention that also banned interracial marriage and required segregated schools. A previous Arizona Supreme Court ruled that "we would be hard pressed to divorce the amendment's language from the insidious discriminatory intent that prompted it." Sadly the current court did not feel the same way.

What's notable is that thousands of children with disabilities already attend private specialty schools at public expense and will continue to do so. Wealthy Arizona children with disabilities whose families can afford attorneys regularly sue school districts under federal law and put their child into a better school at taxpayer expense. School choice only for rich kids is apparently OK to groups like the People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Meanwhile, children like Lexie Weck are left out in the cold. John Rawls would be ashamed of this. We all should be.

Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., is vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute.

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