Arizona pols play politics with the state’s disabled students

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

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.

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."

Now that they've finally gotten relief, they're terrified to go back to the system that failed them.

But when it comes to uprooting the kids from their new schools, voucher opponents blame Republicans at the Legislature for pushing the program in the first place.

"The Legislature wanted a test case on vouchers," Peters says. "So they [took] disabled kids and put them in programs they knew would be struck down. They knew they were starting these kids on an alternate route that they'd get wrenched out of."

I think Peters is right on one level: There's a good chance the Supreme Court could strike down this program.

The problem is, it hasn't done so yet. And as best I can tell, no one bothered to assess the program before giving it the ax. Nor was there much talk about the short-term consequences.

The decision was premature, at best — and callous, at worst.

When I spoke with the governor's spokeswoman, Jeanine L'Ecuyer, she seemed surprised to hear that kids would have to transfer out of their schools because the program's funding was cut.

It's not that L'Ecuyer missed something. No, when the appellate court ruled against the scholarships, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard advised the state that the program wasn't constitutional and therefore wasn't eligible for funding. Even though the Arizona Supreme Court quickly set him straight on that — of course the state could keep funding the program, pending a final court decision — Goddard's advice gave Democrats a good excuse to make the cut. Scholarship advocates say they fought to get the Democrats' attention, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

So they used the program to make a deal when they needed one — and now they're running away just as it's showing results.

That's cold.

Meanwhile, the program's political backers say they were blindsided by the cuts. They were simply out of the loop in the budget process. The House couldn't manage to agree on a budget, so when Senate Democrats persuaded four Republicans to join them on their version, that plan was sent to the House for a straight up or down vote, with no room for negotiation. Even Speaker of the House of Representatives Jim Weiers (R-Phoenix) says the budget went to a vote without a shred of his input. (That tells you something about the Capitol these days — the freakin' speaker can't even manage to get himself included in negotiations?)

Once the deal was cut in the Senate, it was too late to ask for changes in the House.

"Things were done at 2 a.m. so no one knows what the consequence will be [of cutting programs]," Weiers claims. "I have personally spoken to legislators who voted for this budget, and when I talked to them about it, they said they had no idea what was in it."

Now, that should inspire your confidence.

So the Democrats were determined to stop the program, even if it meant hurting kids. And despite having a majority in both House and Senate, the Republicans were too clumsy to stop them.

That's politics, I guess. But when the future of some of the most vulnerable kids in the state hangs in the balance, it's politics at its most infuriating.

Weiers has since identified a pot of money to fund the program, but Attorney General Goddard will need to sign off on the allocation. And, frankly, it seems unlikely that Goddard will say yes. Even the speaker can't just single-handedly appropriate funding; now that the budget has passed, L'Ecuyer says the Legislature would have to call a special session to discuss further spending.

That hasn't happened.

The only solution may be private donations. The Arizona School Tuition Association has a Web page,, with helpful links for anyone interested in chipping in — and getting a dollar-for-dollar tax credit while they're at it.

You can call them emotional, but parents in the scholarship program are desperate to minimize chaos in their children's lives. "Everybody hates change," says Myra Zwagerman of Tempe, whose son Lee is in the program. "But these kids, they really don't do well with change.


"To take a kid who's excelling, and put him back in a public school setting . . . If these programs aren't funded, think about what happens to these kids."

That's exactly the problem. The Democrats didn't think about the kids.

And now, unless the private sector comes through, they're in for a rough transition.

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