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Private School Voucher Plan In Puerto Rico Wins Backing

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A Washington-based legal advocacy group is hoping that a case from Puerto Rico could give the U.S. Supreme Court a chance to affirm the constitutionality of school vouchers.

The Institute for Justice, a conservatively oriented group that has backed other voucher plans, this month joined a lawsuit to defend a program in Puerto Rico that allows students to use public funds to attend private religious and nonreligious schools.

The institute filed a brief supporting four low-income families who used the vouchers to send their children to a Pentecostal school in the island commonwealth.

Last fall, the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, a teachers' union affiliated with the National Education Association, filed suit with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union contending that the program, adopted by the legislature, violates the ban on government establishment of religion in both the U.S. and commonwealth constitutions.

Clint Bolick, the litigation director for the Institute for Justice, said the issue could eventually propel the suit to the U.S. Supreme Court. "It's an issue the Court will have to address as voucher systems proliferate; this would seem to be a good candidate,'' he said.

Just a Commonwealth Issue?

But Robert S. Peck, legislative counsel for the A.C.L.U., predicted that the case will not go past the commonwealth level because the Puerto Rican Constitution states that "no public property or public fund shall be used for the support of schools or educational institutions other than those of the state.''

Puerto Rico's secretary of education, Jose Arsenio Torres, countered that the commonwealth is not supporting private or religious schools, because the money is given directly to families.

"It is the families who make the choice and transact the whole arrangement with the private schools,'' Mr. Torres said. "The private schools are not our clients; the parents are.''

Students whose family income is $18,000 or less receive vouchers worth $1,500 each. The vouchers may be used to move from a public to a private school, from a private to a public school, and between public schools.

The program started this school year in 33 of the island's 100 school districts. Most of the 1,809 students given vouchers used them to move from one public school to another.

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