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Least advantaged hurt by voucher ruling


Matthew Ladner

Philosopher John Rawls said answers to societal problems should be decided as if we lived behind a “veil of ignorance.”

Behind the veil, no one would know whether they might grow up poor or the child of a billionaire. His theory was that this veil creates an incentive to succeed.

Rawls’ philosophy has been hugely influential in left-of-center political thinking. But does today’s public education system remotely approach the Rawlsian ideal of providing a path for the disadvantaged?

Not even close. The recent Arizona Supreme Court decision to eliminate a scholarship program for special needs kids provides a terrible example of why.

Andrea Weck is a single mom whose daughter Lexie has multiple disabilities. The program gave Andrea the opportunity to choose a specialized private school, where Lexie has thrived.

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 school is costly. But with the scholarship and other assistance, Lexie was getting a far better education.

Lexie Weck is precisely the sort of person Rawls had in mind. In the lottery of life, she drew the straw no parent would want for her child.

Arizona’s scholarship program helped, and it didn’t hurt anyone else.

Public schools have complained 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. So they should hardly complain when those students leave with their inadequate funding.

In Arizona, 85 percent of special needs children who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch can’t read by fourth grade. Arizona is hardly unique in this regard.

In 2001, the conservative Fordham Foundation and liberal Progressive Policy Institute reported: “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, groups such as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan began a campaign against the “Catholic menace.”

They tried to block aid to private schools with a Blaine Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

After it failed, anti-Catholic forces began requiring Blaine language 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 such amendments. Florida adopted its version in an 1885 constitutional convention that also banned interracial marriage and 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.” Alas, the current court did not feel the same.

Thousands of children with disabilities attend specialty schools at public expense; their families can afford attorneys and sue school districts under federal law to get their child in a better school at taxpayer expense.

School choice only for rich kids is apparently OK to groups such as People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But children like Lexie Weck are left out in the cold. Rawls would be ashamed over this. We all should be.

Matthew Ladner is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute.

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