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For First Time, Students Use Vouchers for Religious Schools

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Government-issued vouchers that parents can use to pay their children's tuition at religious as well as other nonpublic schools, for years an idea debated in white papers and court cases, have become a reality for hundreds of low-income children in Cleveland.

An Ohio appeals court last month refused without comment to issue an injunction that would prevent the $5.5 million state-financed voucher program from taking effect.

As a result, over the past two weeks, more than 1,700 low-income children have enrolled in 49 private and religious schools under the program.

A state judge upheld the pilot program in late July. Judge Lisa L. Sadler of Franklin County Common Pleas Court in Columbus held that the program did not violate federal or state constitutional prohibitions against government support for religion because religious schools would receive benefits "only indirectly, and purely as the result of the genuinely independent and private choices" of parents. (Please see "Court Clears Cleveland's Voucher Pilot," August 7, 1996.)

Opponents of the program, including teachers' unions and advocates of strict church-state separation, quickly appealed the decision and sought an injunction to bar the program from beginning.

On Aug. 12, a three-judge panel of the Ohio Court of Appeals refused the request for an injunction. The court will still consider the constitutionality of the program, but that could take six months to a year, lawyers involved in the case said.

Donald J. Mooney Jr., a lawyer representing the voucher opponents, said state law does not allow his clients to appeal the denial of the injunction. Instead, they must pursue the merits of their appeal before the state appeals court; if necessary, they can then appeal to the state supreme court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We're probably looking at trying to stop the program by year two," he said.

Meanwhile, the nation's only other experiment with state-funded vouchers for private schools will not be expanding to include religious schools for the time being.

Milwaukee Injunction

A Wisconsin state judge last month refused to lift an injunction that bars the Milwaukee voucher program for low-income parents from including religious schools. The challenge to the expansion is back in a state trial court in Madison after the state supreme court took jurisdiction of the case but then reached a deadlock earlier this year over the constitutionality of including religious schools. (Please see "Religious School Vouchers Get Day in Court," March 6, 1996, and "Court Deadlocks on Religious School Vouchers," April 10, 1996.)

Although it was only a preliminary ruling, Dane County Circuit Judge Paul Higginbotham suggested that he was unlikely to uphold the voucher program in religious schools.

"The state cannot do indirectly what it can't do directly," the judge said during an Aug. 15 court hearing. The judge did lift a part of the injunction that had limited the number of children participating in the voucher program for nonsectarian private schools. The ruling allows that portion of the program to expand from 1,500 students to 15,000.

To help low-income families ineligible for the vouchers, a private organization known as Partners Advancing Values in Education started raising money for scholarships after the original injunction last year.

After Judge Higginbotham's decision, it renewed that effort, and last week a Milwaukee foundation announced it would donate $2 million to the cause.

The gift from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is contingent on PAVE's raising an equal amount from other sources, a goal it is just $230,000 shy of attaining. The foundation donated $1.8 million to the effort last year. (Please see "Blocked by Court, Milwaukee's Voucher Program Gets Reprieve," September 6, 1995.)

Daniel McKinley, PAVE's executive director, said the group expects to use the $4 million to provide scholarships to about 4,400 students, most of them in religious schools in the city.

Apparently a First

The Cleveland program is getting under way just as the policy debate over vouchers is heating up. Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole has proposed a federally financed voucher program for low- and middle-income families. And a new analysis of Milwaukee's program found significant academic gains for students who used vouchers to attend nonsectarian private schools, sparking a debate among education researchers. (Please see "New Studies on Private Choice Fan the Flames," in This Week's News.)

Some advocates of strict church-state separation said they believe the Cleveland program marks the first time that government tuition vouchers are going to religious schools in any significant number.

"To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time there will be an actual implementation of a voucher plan that includes religious schools funded through public funds," said Elliott M. Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, a liberal civil-liberties group in Washington that is challenging the Cleveland program.

Mr. Mincberg spoke only after doing some research and concluding that previous voucher-style aid programs, including challenged programs from New York state and Pennsylvania that reached the Supreme Court in the early 1970's, were never allowed to take effect.

He said he was not counting unusual cases in which religious schools benefited from government aid in some individual circumstances.

The Cleveland program was established by the state legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich last year. It was initially designed to benefit 1,500 low-income children in grades K-3, who could use vouchers of up to $2,250 for tuition at any participating private school in Cleveland or at suburban public schools.

Hectic Weeks

Administrators realized over the summer that as many as 2,000 students will be able to participate this year because of lower-than-expected tuition costs for the first 1,500 participants.

Most of the participating schools are religiously affiliated, and most of those are Roman Catholic schools.

At Our Lady of Good Counsel School, officials late last month were still trying to determine how many voucher students they would have.

"They had an original lottery back in the spring," said Paul Deitrick, the principal of the 430-student Catholic elementary school. "Parents came in and toured the schools, and we got 15 [voucher] students. Then we had to verify their income levels and make sure they live in Cleveland."

However, over the summer, more voucher students were selected from the program's waiting list, leading to a feverish new round of parental school shopping.

"It just got real hectic for the first few weeks of August," said Mr. Deitrick, whose school opened Aug. 26. He was expecting to end up with about 18 voucher students at the school, where tuition runs $1,010 for parish members and $1,700 for nonmembers.

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