Arizona's governor, a self-proclaimed supporter of "school choice," sidestepped questions Tuesday of whether she supports vouchers.
Jan Brewer spoke to a rally at the Capitol called to support the education measures already approved and to lobby lawmakers to expand existing tax credits. The same groups that organized this event also backed a limited voucher program enacted in 2006 to help children with special needs.
Brewer boasted of having voted for the first "choice" programs when she was a legislator in 1994. That included allowing private companies to run charter schools which get state funding as well as permitting "open enrollment," allowing students to go to any public school which has the space.
"Supporting school choice is not contradictory to supporting our public schools," Brewer said. "I support the education of our children no matter where the location or the context."
But after the speech, Brewer refused to say whether she believes the vouchers now provided to fewer than 500 students should be available to all children statewide.
"We're studying it," she said.
Vouchers essentially are checks drawn on the state treasury and given to parents. Those checks are made out to - and can be cashed by - only a private or parochial school for a child's tuition, fees and other costs.
Various efforts to provide vouchers to all have repeatedly failed.
In 2006, however, lawmakers approved two small voucher programs. One is for children with special needs; the other is for children in foster care.
Janet Napolitano, then the governor, had previously opposed any type of voucher. But she agreed not to oppose this one in what her press aide described as a bargaining chip to get votes in the Republican-controlled Legislature for some of her priorities.
As expected, public education groups challenged the legality, citing a constitutional provision which bans the use of public funds to aid private and parochial schools. A trial judge upheld the vouchers; the Court of Appeals ruled otherwise.
The case now awaits a ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court.
Backers acknowledged that they view the two small programs as a test case, hoping that a ruling in their favor would open the door to vouchers for all children in public schools. And that could give Brewer the last word.
Brewer was noncommittal when asked about it.
"Well, you know, when I was in the Legislature we talked a lot about that," she told Capitol Media Services. "And certainly during this period of time there's still talk about it."
Brewer said she is "sure" that the House and Senate education committees will pursue the matter if the high court concludes vouchers are legal.
"And at that time, we'll make some definite decisions how that's going to be addressed," she said. "We'll deal with it then."
The legal argument before the Supreme Court is exactly what the ban on "aid" to private and parochial schools means.
Attorney Tim Keller from the Institute for Justice, defending the vouchers, told the justices that they do not aid the schools. He argued that the true beneficiaries of those state funds are not the schools but the children who are getting the education.
No matter what the high court rules, that doesn't necessarily put the question to rest.
Keller said if the case goes against him, he may craft a constitutional amendment to spell out that vouchers are legal. And John Hartsell, spokesman for the Arizona Education Association, said if the court upholds vouchers, his group might ask voters to amend the constitution to spell out they are forbidden.