PHOENIX – Arizona’s first-of-its-kind education savings accounts (ESA) for families may inspire other states to start similar programs, particularly after the alternative voucher plans survived a legal challenge on Tuesday.

Money in the graduateWith a 3-0 vote, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that the 2011 law establishing ESAs for special needs students was constitutional, as the accounts are specifically designed to benefit families, not private or parochial schools, reports

Under the terms of Arizona’s ESA plan, parents who withdraw their special needs child from a public school receive 90 percent of his or her per-pupil funding in the form of a pre-paid card, explains Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation. The parents are then allowed to spend that money on a variety of educational products and services, including tutoring services, online classes, curriculum materials, college tuition, private school tuition, and educational therapies.

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In 2012, Arizona lawmakers “expanded the (ESA) program to any students attending schools rated D or F,” a move that will potentially add “100,000 students to the program,” reports.

It’s unclear if the 2012 expansion plan will be affected by Tuesday’s ruling, as the court’s decision “most immediately” deals with ESAs for special needs children, the news site notes.

That means that school choice advocates should keep the party hats and confetti in a drawer for the time being.

Even so, choice advocates believe they’ve hit upon a winning formula with the ESA program.

The pro-ESA ruling comes four years after the Arizona Supreme Court declared that vouchers – state-issued checks given to parents, who sign them over to the private school of their choice – were illegal, as they violated constitutional provisions that prohibit public money from being used to support private or religious schools.

What makes ESAs different from regular vouchers is that parents “aren’t compelled to buy anything specific, as opposed to with a voucher, they are compelled to use it for private school tuition,” Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, tells

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That was the key distinction for the appeals court judges. In the official ruling, Judge Jon Thompson writes, “Any aid to religious school would be the result of the genuine and independent private choice of parents.”

The ESAs – which are sometimes referred to as the “empowerment scholarship accounts” – still have to survive a review from the Arizona Supreme Court. Should the high court agree that the savings accounts are constitutional, it could eventually lead to all Arizona parents with school-aged children being given an ESA.

And if that happens, it’ll only be a matter of time before other states begin offering ESA plans, too.