A state law that gives tax dollars to private and parochial schools to educate youngsters is illegal, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The justices, in a unanimous opinion, called the programs established by the Legislature in 2006 "a well-intentioned effort" to assist students with special needs.
"But we are bound by our constitution," wrote Justice Michael Ryan. He said there is no way that the program can be reconciled with a specific constitutional ban against appropriating public funds in aid to private and parochial schools.
For some parents, the ruling makes the future for their children unclear.
A voucher enabled Myra Zwagerman's son, Lee, 16, to attend Valley Christian High School. Lee, who has Asperger syndrome, enrolled last year at the private Chandler school.
"Lee has some traits of autism. Because of that, it kind of deterred how he deals with social situations, not just with the kids but even with understanding directions," Zwagerman said.
While the public high school had a good program, Zwagerman was concerned about the atmosphere and class size. Valley Christian took Lee in and started providing necessary services.
"He's done amazing things now. He went on an out-of-state trip last week, and he had a good time. He had the ability to step out of his comfort zone and trust who he was with," she said.
The family wants to ensure that Lee has a future at the school, but knows it's going to be tough.
"I don't know what we're going to do now, to be honest," she said. "I don't think he'll be able to switch gears right now. ... We'll do whatever we need to do."
The Arizona Supreme Court decision is a significant defeat for legislators who had crafted the very small program in 2006 to test the legal waters. They had hoped a contrary ruling would pave the way for them to propose a full-blown voucher program, with every parent in the state entitled to use state tax money to send their children to any school they want.
Ryan said there is a way to make the vouchers legal: Persuade voters to amend the constitution to alter or repeal the ban.
The law provided $2.5 million in state tax vouchers to parents of disabled youngsters and another $2.5 million in state tax vouchers to parents of former foster children who have been adopted to pay tuition and fees at private or parochial schools.
Attorneys for the Arizona Education Association and other public education groups sued, contending that the programs ran afoul of the constitutional provisions barring use of state dollars to aid these kinds of schools.
But Wednesday's decision is unlikely to be the end of the issue.
House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, said legislative staff attorneys are reviewing the 21-page decision.
Gov. Jan Brewer, a supporter of vouchers, said she wants to work with legislators to find alternatives "that will meet the legal requirements of the Arizona Constitution."
The ruling does not affect the legality of dollar-for-dollar tax credits available to individuals and businesses that provide money for scholarships for students to attend private and parochial schools.