Judge delays voucher order

By Amy Beth Graves Associated Press Published:

U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. ruled that students who participated in the program for elementary school students in Cleveland last year may receive tuition vouchers again this year.

But children who are new to the program this year will not be allowed to get the tuition grants.

Oliver said the new arrangement, which rolls back a heavily criticized decision he made Tuesday, will last only one semester or until a final judgment is reached on whether the program violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Oliver also set a Dec. 13 trial date.

The new ruling didn't satisfy either side.

"I'm stunned. There's absolutely no logic to this decision. Either the program is right or wrong. Why do you hang the kids out to dry?" said David Zanotti, chairman of The School Choice Committee. "He's still jerking around the lives of several hundred children."

Voucher opponents said they still expect to ultimately win the case.

"We can understand because the judge was under a lot of pressure because the decision came down just before school started," said Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "However, his decision made it abundantly clear that vouchers are unconstitutional and that the program is unlikely to be upheld."

A telephone message seeking comment was left at the state attorney general's office, which has appealed the suspension to federal court.

One pro-voucher group, the Institute for Justice, said it filed an immediate appeal of Oliver's latest decision to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, asking that all the voucher students be allowed to receive the grants.

On Tuesday, Oliver granted a request from voucher opponents to suspend the program until a trial is held on the constitutional issue.

He said voucher opponents had a strong argument that the program is unconstitutional. It appears to have the "primary effect of advancing religion," he wrote. Most of the 56 schools that participate are religious institutions.

At the time he said that allowing the program to continue would "cause an even greater harm to the children by setting them up for greater disruption at a later time."

In his ruling Friday, Oliver said that because the state approved funding for this year's voucher program in late July, it was inevitable that a court challenge would come in August as schools were set to begin. That also meant his decision was bound to cause inconvenience.

"This timing caused disruption to the children previously enrolled in the program beyond that normally associated with a student's transferring from one school to another," he said.

The 4-year-old pilot program, which provides tuition money for children of poor families, is the only one of its kind in Ohio. It has an $11.2 million budget for this year.

About 4,000 students from kindergarten through sixth grade were to receive up to $2,500 in tuition vouchers.

Bert Holt, former director of the program and now co-chair of Zanotti's group, estimated Oliver's ruling would keep about 300 students from receiving vouchers.

Worried parents of voucher students flooded schools with phone calls after Oliver's first ruling, wondering if their children could still attend private schools.

The voucher schools responded by letting the students into class until an appeal was heard or Oliver decided whether to let his first decision stand.

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