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 that voided a 2006 law that provided vouchers of public funds 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 that 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 have already made it clear that if the state Supreme Court ultimately concludes that these small programs are legal, they will propose a full-blown voucher program, with every parent in the state entitled to use 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.
The "vouchers" are essentially checks made payable to the parents, who must then 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 that the vouchers are illegal.
"Only by ignoring the plain text of the Arizona Constitution prohibiting state aid to private schools could we find the aid represented by the payment of tuition fees to such schools in this case constitutional," wrote Judge Garye Vasquez for the court.
Vasquez said that 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.