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Chicago Parents' Suit Seeking Private School Vouchers Dismissed

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An Illinois judge last week dismissed a lawsuit by a group of low-income Chicago parents who sought state vouchers to enable them to send their children to private schools.

The suit, filed last year on behalf of about 30 parents and 70 children, contended that the vouchers were needed to remedy the alleged failure of the city's schools to meet the state constitution's mandate for an "efficient'' and "high quality'' public education. It named the state school chief, Robert Leininger, the state board of education, and the Chicago board of education as defendants.

In a March 30 ruling, Cook County Circuit Judge Aaron Jaffe said the plaintiffs had no cause of action because they failed to show any violations of the state constitution.

Even if he identified a cause of action, Judge Jaffe wrote, he could not grant the defendants the relief they sought: a voucher equal in value to state per-pupil spending, estimated at $2,100 to $2,900 a year.

"A public-policy debate over the wisdom of a voucher system has been waged in legislatures all over this land for many years,'' Judge Jaffe wrote. "This is essentially a political question that should be decided in the public arena. Courts should not attempt to decide questions that rightfully belong to the legislature.''

Appeal Planned

The Chicago families are being represented by the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based organization that has promoted vouchers nationwide. The group also is representing low-income parents in the Los Angeles area in a similar suit.

Clint Bolick, the institute's litigation director, said he will appeal the dismissal of the suit.

"We knew at some point we would have to go up to the appeals courts,'' Mr. Bolick said.

The judge, he continued, "felt that this is purely a legislative matter and the constitutional provisions impose no accountability on the bureaucracy and confer no rights on the children. That is the issue we will take up on appeal.''

'Triple Detriment'

In papers filed with the court, the institute argued that "as low-income youngsters within the Chicago public schools, plaintiff schoolchildren suffer a triple detriment.''

"They are consigned to schools that are among the worst in the nation, their parents lack the power within the system to significantly control or influence the direction or quality of their children's education, and they lack the financial resources to opt out of the system,'' the suit alleged.

Lawyers for the state and the Chicago board of education responded that education is not guaranteed as a fundamental right under the state constitution.

The constitution, they said, refers to education only as a "fundamental goal.''

Judge Sympathetic

Judge Jaffe sympathized with the Chicago parents, noting that in the metropolitan area "hardly a day passes by without media attention focusing in on some problem in the Chicago school system.''

But, he added, the courts cannot "step in without legal justification.''

He said the parents failed to detail any state constitutional violations and failed to acknowledge that the state school code has many provisions that address the education of economically disadvantaged students and that are specifically designed to help the Chicago school system.

"The legislature has addressed and acted upon the mandate given to it by the constitution,'' Judge Jaffe wrote. "It has passed legislation providing for what it deems a free, efficient system of quality education up through the secondary level.''

In the California case, the Institute for Justice has filed an amended complaint that adds the Los Angeles, Compton, and Inglewood school districts as defendants along with state education officials.

The state defendants failed in their initial attempt to have the suit dismissed.

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