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Judge Rejects Puerto Rico School-Voucher Plan

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In a case being closely watched by both sides of the private-school-voucher debate in the United States, a Puerto Rico judge has struck down a voucher plan that includes private religious schools.

Voucher advocates got involved in the case with the hope that it would lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling endorsing the inclusion of religious schools in parental-choice plans.

But that prospect dimmed when the Puerto Rico voucher plan was struck down last month based on provisions of the commonwealth Constitution barring the government from aiding private schools. While Puerto Rico is governed by the U.S. Constitution, the judge did not decide the question of whether the plan violates the federal Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.

"We are going to ask the Puerto Rico Supreme Court to address all of the constitutional issues that were raised, including the federal constitutional question,'' said Clint Bolick, the litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal organization that intervened in the case on behalf of parents and children who were using the private school vouchers.

The case "may well still have national implications,'' Mr. Bolick said, "although this decision as written would not.''

Union Challenged Law

The Puerto Rico plan, which took effect last September, provides vouchers worth up to $1,500 for children from low-income families to apply toward private school tuition or to attend other public schools. The Teachers Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association, challenged the plan.

San Juan Superior Court Judge Flavio Cumpiano ruled that the voucher plan violates two provisions of the Puerto Rico Constitution that forbid the use of public funds for nonpublic schools.

While the judge did not discuss the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, the ruling was still a victory for church-state separation, said Steven K. Green, the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"It's significant because even though Judge Cumpiano ruled on state constitutional grounds, he nevertheless was forced to address, and he rejected, the false notion of private school choice--that the benefit goes to the parent and the child instead of to the school,'' Mr. Green said.

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