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Lawsuit Seeks To Block Vouchers in Cleveland

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Opponents of Ohio's program to give low-income parents in Cleveland vouchers allowing them to send children to private and religious schools filed a lawsuit last week in an effort to block it.

The legislature last year approved the $5.5 million pilot program, which is scheduled to begin in September. It would distribute vouchers worth up to $2,250 for about 1,500 elementary school children in Cleveland.

A coalition of Ohio parents and teachers, along with the American Federation of Teachers, filed the suit Jan. 10 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. It seeks an injunction that would stop the state from implementing the program.

"We feel that there are strong violations of both the U.S. and the Ohio constitutions," said Ron Marec, the president of the AFT-affiliated Ohio Federation of Teachers, which is also among the plaintiffs.

Mr. Marec said the pilot program, by including scholarships for religious schools, raises First Amendment questions about the separation of church and state. The law also violates the state constitution because it applies only to Cleveland, rather than operating throughout the state, he maintained.

"We wanted to get the message out to parents: Don't count your vouchers before the courts have ruled," added Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the AFT.

A judge has been appointed in the case, and the next step is for a hearing date to be set, Mr. Marec said.

Gov. George V. Voinovich, who championed the program, released a statement calling the suit "a slap in the face" to parents trying to decide where to send their children to school.

"It is government's responsibility to help empower parents with the right to choose where their children attend school, and I will vigorously fight to defend our pilot program," he said.

Ohio is the second state in the country, after Wisconsin, to enact a voucher program.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has issued a temporary injunction blocking an expansion of Milwaukee's controversial vouch-er program to include religious schools. Experts predict the dispute will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

In Cleveland, officials have already begun the first phase of the voucher experiment and plan to continue despite the lawsuit.

"We're moving full steam ahead," said Bert L. Holt, the administrator of the voucher program, which is known as the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.

Lottery Drawn

Parents lined up Jan. 8 to pick lottery numbers for a drawing that enabled winners to receive vouchers for students entering grades K-3 in September.

The lottery awarded tuition vouchers to 790 low-income African-American students, 335 low-income students of other backgrounds, and 375 low-income students who already attend private schools.

A total of 6,277 parents applied for the vouchers, Ms. Holt said. In addition, she said, 52 schools have won approval to participate in the program--38 of them religious schools.

Although the legislation would have allowed public schools in districts adjoining Cleveland to join the program, none chose to participate, Ms. Holt said.

Parents who chose winning lottery tickets will be required to attend a school fair on Jan. 22, at which they will hear from principals of the participating schools and learn about the application process. They will have to apply to the schools of their choice by Feb. 15.

HOPE Offers Help

The program has also received a boost from an Ohio nonprofit organization founded by an Akron industrialist and voucher advocate, David Brennan.

The group, HOPE for Cleveland's Children, has been helping parents with the unfamiliar paperwork and offering assistance to churches that want to open schools.

The organization has helped launch four church-affiliated schools that are scheduled to participate in the pilot program.

Mary Ann Jackson, the group's project administrator, said the organization wanted to allow children to go to school in their neighborhoods instead of being bused elsewhere.

"The idea is you go to school where you live," she said. "We recognize that that still is the best way to educate children."

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