May is national foster care month. In Arizona, the state legislature marked the occasion by passing emergency legislation to rescue an education program that helps foster children from being terminated.
Since 2006, Arizona has provided tuition scholarships to students who have been placed in foster care to attend private school. Research shows that foster children are among the most at-risk groups in our society, and they often face challenges in the classroom. Among the challenges that foster children often face are instability (with frequent home placements leading to school transfers) and low-expectations. Arizona’s scholarship program was designed to give students who had been placed in foster care a special opportunity to attend a school of their guardian’s choice to ensure that they receive a great educational opportunity.
One might think that a program that helps foster children would be welcomed by groups across the ideological spectrum. Unfortunately, special interest groups and some liberals viewed the programs a threat to public education, because it allowed a few hundred children to attend private schools using publicly-funded scholarships. The Arizona teachers unions and ACLU challenged the legality of the program in state court, arguing that the foster care scholarship program (and another voucher program for special education students) violated the state’s constitutional restriction against tax dollars going to private schools.
In March, the Arizona State Supreme Court ruled that the programs were unconstitutional under state law. The decision sent parents scrambling to determine how to find quality schools for their special needs and foster children. Fortunately, school choice supporters in Arizona pressed offered a solution—creating legislation to allow these students to continue to attend private schools using scholarships paid for through Arizona’s scholarship tax credit programs. The state legislature approved the fix and Governor Jan Brewer is expected to sign the legislation.
As people across the country recognize foster care awareness month, they should consider strategies like school choice to improve educational opportunities for foster children. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, a former foster mother, is taking the lead on this issue on Capitol Hill by proposing the School Choice for Foster Kids Act. Everyone should recognize the need to give our most at-risk kids an opportunity for a brighter future.