AZ high court agrees to hear vouchers case
Question is whether funds can be used for private, parochial schools
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/264711
PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court will decide whether parents can use tax dollars to send their children to private or parochial schools.
Without comment, the justices agreed Tuesday to review a Court of Appeals decision voiding a 2006 law that provided publicly funded vouchers to the parents of some students with special needs. The lower court said such funding is unconstitutional.
Tuesday's decision gives supporters of the vouchers a chance to argue that they are legal and to save the programs, which serve fewer than 500 students.
But the implications are far broader.
The 2006 law was seen as a method of testing the limits of two constitutional provisions.
One prohibits the use of public money for "any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment." The other bars the appropriation of public money "in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school."
Backers say if the state Supreme Court finds these small programs are legal, they will propose a full-blown voucher program, with parents in the state entitled to use state tax money to send their children to any school they want.
The law at issue provides $2.5 million in state tax vouchers to the parents of former foster children who have been adopted, vouchers that can be used to pay tuition and fees at private or parochial schools. That law also has another $2.5 million for a similar programs for disabled youngsters.
The "vouchers" essentially are checks, made payable to the parents, who then must endorse them over to the private or parochial school.
But attorney Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice said that doesn't mean tax dollars are going to "aid" those schools.
"The question is who primarily benefits from the program," Keller said. "Here the primary beneficiaries are clearly parents and children, not the private sectarian schools."
Various public education groups disagreed and filed suit. While a trial judge found the vouchers legal, the Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision earlier this year, concluded otherwise.
Appeals Court Judge Garye Vásquez said if lawmakers want such a program, there is a legal way to do it: Propose a constitutional amendment and put it before voters to see if they want to make the change.
Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said he hoped the high court would reject the appeal and allow the appellate ruling to stand. But he said just because the justices chose to hear arguments on the legality of the vouchers doesn't necessarily mean they intend to overturn the decision.
The Supreme Court previously agreed to let the funding continue this school year while the merits of the issue are debated.
No date has been set for the Supreme Court hearing.