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Judge Rejects Challenge to Wisconsin Voucher Law

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By Debra Viadero

A Wisconsin judge has rejected a challenge to the state's controversial new school-choice program, thus clearing the way for several hundred disadvantaged students in Milwaukee to attend private, nonsectarian schools at state expense.

The program is legal, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Susan Steingass said in August, because the Wisconsin constitution "does not expressly require that public expenditures be made only for public purposes.''

She also ruled that the state education department could not require participating private schools to provide the same services for disabled students that public systems do.

A coalition comprising public-edion groups and the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has appealed the ruling. A decision on the appeal is expected this month.

The Fourth District Court of Appeals last month turned down the groups' request for a preliminary injunction postponing the start of the program until a ruling is made.

Under a law passed by the legislature last spring, private schools will receive the amount of state per-pupil aid--currently, about $2,500--for each eligible student they enroll.

State officials said approximately 400 former public-school students will be enrolled in the program when school starts this month. As many as 10 private schools have indicatedre interested in participating.

Judge Steingass' ruling came in a suit filed by six private schools and the parents of five children enrolled in the new program. They accused state Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover of "bureaucratically strangling" the program by requiring the private schools to provide special education and imposing other restrictive mandates.

In response, Mr. Grover and other opponents of the plan filed legal briefs asking that the program be declared unconstitutional because it called for the expenditure of public money for private purposes and because the private schools would not be held to the same standards as public schools.

"We just thought that since these people are getting public money that they ought to assure that they are protecting the interest of all children," Mr. Grover said.

Similar arguments had been made in another unsuccessful lawsuit filed against the program in June by many of the same groups.

But Judge Steingass said Mr. Grover was overstepping his authority by holding the private schools to standards "more onerous than those applied to other public-school programs or private programs for public-school pupils."

She cited a U.S. Education Department memorandum sent in July to Milwaukee school officials, which gave the department's interpretation of the federal special-education mandate. The document,sisiond by Undersecretarynders, said federal law did not apply because only state money was being transferred to private schools.

Parents of handicapped pupils who chose to participate in the new program, the federal analysis continued, were giving up their right to a "free, appropriate education" for their children.

The choice plan also won an endorsement last month from a state panel studying ways to improve the public school system. A subcommittee of the Commission on Schools for the 21st Century said the voucher plan was a "means to invigorate the public school system" and should be expanded outside of Milwaukee.

But Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, who backs the program, has said it should not be expanded until its effects in Milwaukee can be assessed.

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