A state judge on Wednesday tossed out a legal challenge to an Arizona law that provides tax dollars directly to private and parochial schools.
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way contended that legislation passed last year runs afoul of the state constitution because it provides state money for some students to attend nonpublic schools.
Arizona’s constitution states “no public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction.”
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Bethany Hicks rebuffed claims that the law conflicts with the state constitution.
Similarly, she rejected contentions that the funding is contrary to another constitutional provision that bars the use of public funds “in aid of ... any private or sectarian school.”
Instead, the judge accepted the argument made by attorneys for both the state and the Institute for Justice that the vouchers — essentially checks payable to the public or private schools — are “scholarships” designed to benefit the students and not to benefit the schools.
John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, one of the groups that sued, vowed an appeal. He said allowing tax dollars to go to private and parochial schools undermines the ability of the state to ensure all students “have an equal opportunity to receive a quality public education.”
The Arizona Supreme Court has upheld a different program that provides dollar-for-dollar state tax credits for those who donate to organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend private and parochial schools.
In that case, though, the justices ruled that those are not public funds because the money involved goes directly from the parents to the schools and not through the state treasury. The vouchers being challenged here, by contrast, are checks drawn on the treasury.
The specific voucher plans being challenged are small, with state funding totaling just $5 million a year out of close to $4.5 billion in state dollars spent on public education.
But Wednesday’s ruling could have a much larger impact: Supporters have said they will seek to allow even more parents to receive tax vouchers if these two programs survive court challenges.
One of the challenged programs provides $2.5 million for vouchers for children with physical, emotional or learning disabilities. The other sets aside an identical amount for up to 500 foster children.
Attorney Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice said the vouchers are legal because it’s the parents of the children, not the state, who decide where to use the vouchers.