Saturday, August 28, 1999

Judge reverses his voucher decision

Grants allowed until final ruling

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — The judge who created turmoil for thousands of families by holding up a state-funded voucher program just as the school year began decided Friday to delay his order.

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

        But about 600 children new to the program will not be allowed to get the tuition grants. Judge 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 separation of church and state.

        Judge Oliver set a Dec. 13 trial date in a suit brought against the program by civil liberties and education groups.

        The 4-year-old pilot program, which provides tuition money for 4,000 children of poor families, is the only one of its kind in Ohio. It has an $11.2 million budget for this year.

        “This is very unfair to do to children,” said Dawne Bivins, 31, who has two daughters signed up for the voucher program. Ms. Bivins' 10-year-old has received voucher money for three years, but her 5-year-old is a first-year participant.

        Voucher opponents said they still expect to win the case.

        “His (Tuesday) decision made it abundantly clear that vouchers are unconstitutional and that the program is unlikely to be upheld,” said Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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

        The judge Tuesday 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, Judge Oliver said that the timing of Tuesday's decision “caused disruption ... beyond that normally associated with a student's transferring from one school to another.”


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