INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana Supreme Court justices want to know whether the nation's largest school voucher program primarily benefits students' parents or religious institutions.
The five justices prodded lawyers for both sides on that point Wednesday during a hearing on a constitutional challenge to the 2011 law under which more than 9,000 students have switched from public to private schools with help from state funds.
Supporters say the voucher system allows parents to send their children to private schools they otherwise couldn't afford, the deny claims that it constitutes giving public money to religious institutions.
"The state cannot give direct grants to religious institutions, but that is not the same thing as providing money that may be, at the decision of a parent and a student, used to pay tuition at a religious school," argued Solicitor General Thomas Fisher.
But opponents say virtually all the voucher money goes to religious schools, and the system undermines public education.
"The funds here, Justice Rucker, even though they're described as scholarships to parents, they come directly from the state to the schools," said attorney John West, who represents the primary plaintiff, the vice president of the Indiana State Teachers' Association.
Parents are split on the issue.
Teresa Meredith said she believes the voucher program will drain so much tax money away from the public schools that it may eventually put some of them out of business.
"I think that there is definitely an issue with, in some communities, whether public education's doors will remain open, depending on the number of private schools and religious schools who take the voucher money and drain funds and resources," Meredith said.
But Heather Coffy, who used the vouchers to transfer her three children to Catholic schools, said she's only trying to meet her kids' academic needs, not benefit a religious institution.
"I am not Catholic," she said. "I send my children to this school for the sole purpose of the great education that they are experiencing and the environment that they are in. It's going to be their choice what they want to do with the religion."
The affect of the Indiana vouchers is being closed watched because they are available to middle class students.