Arizona pols play politics with the state’s disabled students

Rebecca Fay wasn't supposed to talk or walk. Or learn. As an infant, a series of seizures left her with serious mental and physical disabilities.

Doctors told her parents to put her in an institution and move on.

They didn't. And Rebecca learned to walk and talk. At a special school for students with disabilities, she even learned to read.

Governor Janet Napolitano signed off on scholarships for disabled and foster kids — only to give them the ax two years later.
Social Eye Media 2008
Governor Janet Napolitano signed off on scholarships for disabled and foster kids — only to give them the ax two years later.

Then the Fays moved to Tucson from Massachusetts, and Rebecca was placed in a mainstream classroom. Rebecca's new school didn't have the therapists mandated by law; her teacher was overwhelmed; her aide was untrained. When Rebecca's mother, Susan, attended class to investigate what was going on, she found to her horror that nothing was going on.

Rebecca was too far behind her classmates to comprehend much of anything.

Not surprisingly, by the time Rebecca finished fifth grade, she was reading at just first-grade level.

Last year, thanks to a special scholarship from the state of Arizona, the Fays were able to enroll Rebecca in private school — and, there, the slender 14-year-old flourished.

"After one year, she's at fifth-grade reading level and fifth-grade math level," boasts her father, Brendan.

There's only one problem.


The scholarship program that aided Rebecca Fay was created during flush economic times, as part of a budget compromise. Republicans wanted private-school vouchers for disabled kids and students who'd been in foster care; Governor Janet Napolitano wanted all-day kindergarten and health insurance for poor families. That year, everybody got what they wanted.

Not this year. And not just because Arizona's economy is going to hell.

Teachers unions, People for the American Way, and other left-leaning groups filed suit to stop the scholarship program. And though the lefties initially lost in district court, the appeals court granted them victory earlier this year.

Normally, that wouldn't be the end. Despite some initial confusion, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature may continue to fund the program while it reviews the case.

But Democrats didn't care. Instead, they saw the appellate decision as the perfect political cover.

As her spokeswoman admitted to me, Governor Napolitano has a distinct "lack of enthusiasm" for voucher programs. Most Democrats in the Legislature feel the same way.

So they gutted the program — literally.

This year's budget, recently approved by both houses, provides zero funding for the scholarships.

Never mind that that the state Supreme Court could yet uphold the scholarship program. And never mind that we should have the court's final answer within the school year.

Rather than wait for the verdict, our politicians decided to uproot hundreds of special-needs kids.

And though program advocates in the House of Representatives say they have a fix, it's an unusual scheme requiring the state attorney general's acquiescence, which is hardly a given.

So while the politicians wrangle and the lawyers bicker, kids like Rebecca Fay and their parents wait for an answer — petrified that they'll end up back in the same public schools that failed them.

Arizona has spent public money to educate disabled kids in private schools for decades. If a school district decides that it can't "appropriately educate" a disabled student, private schools get to take over on the taxpayer's dime.

It wasn't until the Legislature approved this particular scholarship program in 2006 that anybody filed a lawsuit.


This program puts the decision about "appropriate education" in the hands of parents, not school districts. And I'm not exaggerating when I say that school districts, and teachers unions, hate this.

They think they know what's best for kids. They are suspicious of meddling parents. And they see each and every parental-choice program as the straw that could break the back of the entire public school system.

Every kid who gets tax dollars for private school, after all, means less funding for public schools. And public school advocates also live in constant fear of the ol' slippery slope: If they start letting parents choose to send their disabled kids to private school, tuition-free, who's to say that vouchers for non-disabled kids won't come next?

Don Peters is the parent of a disabled child. An attorney with Miller, LaSota, and Peters, he's also lead lawyer for the coalition trying to strike down the scholarship program.

"Parents are not the best judges of what is appropriate and necessary for their children," he tells me. "Parents of disabled children tend to be very emotional and get very frustrated because they want what's best for the child . . . These are children who the public schools felt would be handled most appropriately by public schools."

As Peters notes, parents who are frustrated by the public schools do have remedies. For one thing, they can file a lawsuit to get their kid a private-school placement. But that's hardly a quick fix — or one guaranteed to work.

I listened to half a dozen parents in the scholarship program talk about how private schools helped their kids. I also read affidavits from nearly a dozen more.

They are heartbreaking.

Here are parents who fought, for years, even as public schools let them down, time and again: One Yavapai County parent reports that when an aide wasn't available for her daughter, her public school would simply strap her into a chair to keep her under control. Other parents recount moving, more than once, in search of a district willing to teach their children, not just babysit them or leave them to rot all day in the "quiet room."

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James Bailey
James Bailey

Well, I guess you have other motives besides the education of your child as you didn't respond to my question about what public school ignored your IEP.

Tom Horne could easily make this issue a non-issue by agreeing to accept the funds from the House legislator and make sure they are used by the Department of Education in a manner that would properly educate the less than 500 students which had been involved in the scholarship program. There is no provision of the law that says the Department of Education can't spend the money where it wants in contracting with private vendors to educate school children with special needs. In fact that is the law. However, because the right wing nuts want to open public education funds to religious institutions without going through the Dept. of Ed. they reject those options and harm their children by standing by with their hands in their pockets complaining about the lack of action by others.

I say get your hands out of your pockets and start writing letters to Tom Horne and the House Majority Leader telling them to do the right thing - Fund the Dept. of Ed. properly so these children can be educated in an appropriate manner.

BTW - Check out Mary Jo Pitzl's latest article in todays Repulsive - much better than then lopsided article by Fenske.

James Bailey
James Bailey

Brendon says: "Mr. Bailey; This is MR. Fay! Who's name calling?"

I say you are when you stated: "This is addressed to Mr. Bailey and other left wing liberals"

Using terms like that is name calling and not intended to further civilised discourse but only to denigrate others in an attempt to make your argument look better. Only bullys pull that crap. You're not a bully are you?

Brendon says: "I support the federal law called 'No Child Left Behind' It finally has some accountability for public School Systems and teachers."

What does No Child Left Behind (a "liberal" policy by the way) have to do with giving taxpayer monies to religious schools in violation of our Constitution?

Brendon says: "That is a conservative view!"

No, it is not. Look up the words you are using in the dictionary. You are bending the meaning to fit your own argument.

Brendon says: "Liberals like you don't see the system as broke."

Yes, I do actually (although I am not a liberal - stop the name calling). It's broke because of people (like you) who elect politicians who don't properly fund our public schools.

Brendon says: "The Arizona Legislature put the Scholarship for Students with Disabilities into law (signed by the governor). It is legal. Check your facts."

I did, then it was not funded this year. That's legal, check your facts.

Brendon says: "We did have an IEP.

Oh my, I think I'm going to explode with pride. You finally addressed ONE question I had. After all the blithering on about unrelated bullshirt, you actually answered my simple question.

Brendon says: "The school system refused to abide by it."

Now, another simple question - Which school system was this that "refused to abide by the IEP?

BTW - Before you spout off again about who is liberal and who is conservative, maybe you should consult a dictionary and maybe check into the PC issue (i.e., Polite Conversation).

Brendan Fay
Brendan Fay

Mr. Bailey; This is MR. Fay! Who's name calling? I support the federal law called 'No Child Left Behind' It finally has some accountability for public School Systems and teachers. That is a conservative view! Liberals like you don't see the system as broke. You don't see the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on the public school system in this country. Want proof that public education doesn't work? Go to a store and see if the 22 year old clerk can make change without the register telling him or her how much to give back! See the terrible resumes that high school and college graduates send out! Look at this generation of high school students who cannot read. The system is broke.

The Arizona Legislature put the Scholarship for Students with Disabilities into law (signed by the governor). It is legal. Check your facts. As for myself being disingeniuos, I want what is BEST for my daughter. She is entitled like any other child to an education. The public school system failed my daughter (an most special needs students). My daughter has a right to go where she needs to get what she is entitled to. Every GOOD parent will fight for their kids. Let's put politics aside and think about the children. Because of the school my daughter attends, she can make change, read, and write grammatically correct sentences. She could not ever do that in public school. We did have an IEP. The school system refused to abide by it. They refused to give any options. We took the option to put our daughter in private school. End of story.

James Bailey
James Bailey

WELL AREN'T YOU SPECIAL. Did you know that typing in capitals is equilavent to yelling in speech? I'm assuming you didn't know that as I didn't think you really are that rude.

Did you know that as part of a child's Individual Education Plan that the public school can place a child into a private educational institution? Yes, it's true. If the professionals (who know that they're falliable) feel that it is necessary or a parent can convince the school, they will elect to pay the tuition for a private school placement out of public funds. THis is okay, constitutionally, because it's the school doing it.

However, if a parent (who is normally VERY subjective - notice I yelled) wants to place their child into a private school outside the public school, system, I think they should pay for it themselves or get a private scholarship.

Me, I think you just want to make a legal case in an attempt to overturn the separate of church and state in public education set up by our Constitution. So really, you don't care so much for your child (or you would have worked within the system to get the help that is available for you there) YOU JUST WANT TO USE YOUR CHILD FOR YOUR OWN PETTY POLITICAL GAME.

How sad.

I hope your child grows up, reads about this crap you pulled and gives you what for in about 20 years.



James Bailey
James Bailey

Ms. Fay:

Did you know your name means "fairy"? Cool.

Well, to get to your point about me being a liberal, I'd have to take exception to that. There are not really any "liberal" or "conservative" people, just the positions those people take on specific issues. What you're doing is just plain mean-spirited name calling so you can espouse your self-serving opinions (i.e., let's have our tax dollars support your child's private education - a "liberal" position BTW).

It's very conservative to support public education in this country (you ARE from the US of A aren't you?). If a person takes the position that public education should be supported by tax revenue, that is a conservative position, NOT a liberal one. Public education has been a mainstay of the people on this continent before whitey ever killed his first injun (Native Americans practiced public education). Did you know that the Constitution provides for public education? It also provides that public funds, taxes, cannot be used for private schools. Did you know that? If so, why are you trying to make the officials of our government here violate their oath of office instead of trying to change the consitution? (see more questions - specific answers to them would be welcome).

I think the disingenious basis from which you approach this issue is very apparent in that you did not answer any of my questions: Did the parent(s) ask the school to prepare an independent eduction plan? That question was not addressed in the article or in your post as well Ms. Fay. Did you know that Public schools are required to produced these plans when requested?

PS - I would prefer that you not be so inflammatory in your posting your liberal views on public eduction here. Can't we have a calm and "conservative" discussion without the insults and name calling?


Thank you for recognizing not every child is going to be able to thrive in a public school. Sure would be easier if they did, but we're glad there are options! Well, there *were* options. Now we parents are scrambling like crazy to try to find money in this economy. All the parents I know are breaking their backs working overtime and trying to find ways to support their kids who happen to need specialized education. It's not their fault if the public schools can't give them what they need. It's no one's fault, but it sure would be nice to have some help. Thank you for bringing awareness regarding the State Tax Credit - you're right, many people don't know about it. At least no one has taken *that* program away!

Brendan Fay
Brendan Fay

This is addressed to Mr. Bailey and other left wing liberals. Sarah Fenske did an admirable job researching ALL the information for her piece. You can try to tell us that public schools systems know what is best for our daughter. You can tell us they can do a better job than we can. But the facts speak for themselves. The public school system did not do anything for our daughter. They took her money (and for them it is all about money) and spent 1/2 of it to pay part of a teacher's salary at the school; a teacher who had nothing to do with special education! My daughter had learned absolutely nothing in school as is witnessed by her 1st grade reading and kindergarten math level. In her private school, in one year, Rebecca jumped up to a 5th grade math and reading level. Her socialization skills improved tremendously. There was no stress by peers.

The facts speak for themselves. The public school couldn't (and didn't want to) educate my daughter. They are in it for the money. Teachers Unions are a disgraceful Democratic PAC. Liberals want to take our children at birth and raise them (because they think they can do a better job) and stiff us with a bill that consists of nothing more than bloated wasteful spending.

My daughter's money was spent at her public school on everything except her special needs. Not on private schools. Our daughter had several IEPs and the public school refused to abide by them.

The truth obviously must be 'skewing' this issue. A true liberal never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.If you tell a lie enough times, the teller will begin to believe it. I think if you study Journalism 101, Ms. Fenske fits the bill as a good journalist. Study CNN,PBS,ABC,NBC,CBS news to learn what 'Hack Journalism is.

N. V. Cohen
N. V. Cohen

So, Sarah Fenske thinks the Republicans are the stalwart champions of disabled children's rights?! Forgive me, I threw up in my mouth at that sad howler! My nephew is profoundly disabled and due to the Republicans' dismal lack of interest in his welfare (and all disabled children), my sister had to move to liberal, Democratic Massachussetts for him to get the schooling and rehabilitation he required. At least, until Mitt Romney gutted the funding! Don't attack the hard-working Democrats like Janet Napolitano because they won't support right-wing efforts to force school vouchers down the voters' throats on the backs of these unfortunate children. It's Republicans like Weiers, Karen Johnson, and the like who are shameless in using these children to further their own agendas. What is Sarah Fenske smoking that she thinks the Republicans have the right idea? They're the ones wasting voters' money on a corrosive and unnecessary anti-gay amendment that was already defeated by the majority of Arizona voters. Think of what purposes all THAT money could do for disadvantaged children. After the Hugh Hallman lovefest she wrote two weeks ago, I thought Fenske was sadly misinformed, but now I think she's some kind of cretinous mole who's infiltrated the New Times from the GOP National Committee (or at least the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth)!

James Bailey
James Bailey

Sarah, did you happen to recognize the irony in what you are saying? The parents moved from Massachetts to Tucson (did they "chose" to do this?) and then made the "choice" to place their child in a public school. You seem to be advocating on behalf of parents' choosing what schools (public or private) their children attend, using public tax dollars to pay for it of course. The implication is that you think parents know better than professional educational therapists/counselors. However, you use an example where the parents CHOSE to place their child in the wrong environment - a public school with little experience or resources that could teach their child properly.

Where did the parents get the information on where to move their child too after they found out that the "CHOICE" they made to place their child in a mainstream public school was incorrect and harmful to their child's education? From the public school's professional counselor?

Why didn't the public school you reference have a professional therapist on staff? Not enough money? Maybe because money was being paid by the State to private religious institutions? Was the public school asked to develop an individual plan for the young lady?

So many questions left unanswered by Ms. Fenske. I wonder if she already had the answers and left them out of her article in an effort to further skew her take on the "news" she was presenting.

I think Sarah Fenske should think a little harder about what makes a journalist a good one or a hack.

James Bailey
James Bailey

Just kidding Peter. Keep up the good work. Remember folks, Sarah Fenske is proud of her conservative opinions and has stated she is in this publication. Wait, is this an opinion piece or news?

Gern  Blintstin
Gern Blintstin

Don Peters was right: if Sara Fenske or the voucher proponents wants to be angry with anyone, they should be angry at the Legislature for setting up this unconstitutional program to begin with. Arizona Constitution, Art. IX, Sec. 10: No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation." Pretty clear that the Legislature can't fund vouchers for private schools. This IS the proverbial camel's nose under the tent and the fate of public education is at stake.

James Bailey
James Bailey

Don Peters is a right-wing hack so I'm surprised that he's advocating an entitlement program. I always thought that conservatives were interested in elminating all entitlment programs (including social security folks). Now as I understand it the funding of this scholarship program would be considered a liberal program. Of course it funds religious institutions with taxpayer dollars (who cares about separation of church and state) so I'm guessing that the reason for this flip-flop is the liberal love of christ has warmed the cockles of his heart.

I'm very surprised at New Times for writing such a one-sided article. What you want to be this article gets no awards for the New Times this year.

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