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Voucher Plan Heads To Court

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Opponents of Ohio's recently approved plan to give low-income parents in Cleveland vouchers to send their children to private and religious schools went to court in January in an effort to block it.

A coalition of teachers and parents, along with the American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliate, filed the lawsuit, arguing that the pilot program, by including scholarships for religious schools, violates the First Amendment's establishment clause. It also violates the state constitution, they say, because it is limited to Cleveland and doesn't apply to the rest of the state. The suit, filed Jan. 10 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, seeks an injunction that would stop the state from implementing the program.

A measure approved last year by the Ohio legislature provides $5.5 million for the controversial program. Under the law, approximately 1,500 of the city's elementary school students would receive vouchers worth up to $2,250 for a private school education. The program is scheduled to begin in September.

"We feel that there are strong violations of both the U.S. and the Ohio constitutions," says Ron Marec, president of the AFT-affiliated Ohio Federation of Teachers. Adds AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz: "We wanted to get the message out to parents: Don't count your vouchers before the courts have ruled."

Gov. George Voinovich, who championed the voucher plan, released a statement calling the suit "a slap in the face" to parents trying to decide where to educate their children. "It is government's responsibility to help empower parents with the right to choose where their children attend school," he said. "And I will vigorously fight to defend our pilot program."

Ohio is the second state in the country, after Wisconsin, to enact a voucher program. Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction blocking the expansion of that controversial voucher program to include religious schools. Experts predict the dispute will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

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," says Bert Holt, who is administering the plan, known as the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.

In January, a total of 6,277 parents participated in a lottery that determined who would receive the vouchers. They were awarded to 790 low-income African-American students, 335 low-income students of other backgrounds, and 375 low-income students who already attend private schools. Parents of those students attended a school fair on Jan. 22, where they learned about the application process. They had until Feb. 15 to apply to the schools of their choice. As of January, 52 schools had been approved to take part in the program--38 of them religious schools.

--Jeanne Ponessa

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