Ohio vouchers for parochial schools tested; Supreme Court asked to let experiment continue


WASHINGTON -- In a new test of the Supreme Court's view of school vouchers to pay for parochial students' tuition, the state of Ohio asked a justice yesterday to let a Cleveland voucher program continue.

A federal judge in Cleveland ruled in August that the program is probably unconstitutional and barred the state from providing vouchers to students who were to begin receiving them this school year.

The program provides up to $2,500 a year for each student to attend a private -- including parochial -- school. Students from poor families get larger grants. Four of every 10 schools taking part are parochial institutions.

The state said yesterday that the judge's order in August has caused families to pull 60 children out of private schools because they are uncertain of the program's fate and cannot afford the tuition themselves.

It is by no means a certainty, the state argued, that the program will ultimately be struck down by the Supreme Court, so it should not be interrupted at this stage, harming the children involved and jeopardizing an experimental program that is being monitored widely to see how vouchers affect education.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who handles emergency requests from Midwestern states, took no immediate action but told opponents of the voucher program to reply next week to the state's plea.

An order allowing the program to continue would not settle the constitutional issue but would be taken as a favorable hint about the program's validity.

Ohio turned to Stevens because a federal appeals court in Cincinnati has taken no action on the state's request to let the program continue while the lawsuit unfolded.

"We are simply perplexed why the court of appeals has not issued any ruling or even an explanation of its inaction," the state said in its application.

Four times in the past year, the justices have refused to hear test cases on vouchers or other forms of public aid for parochial tuition. But the issue keeps returning to the court, and ultimately the justices are likely to rule on it.

State Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery told Stevens that the families affected by the temporary ban on tuition aid "cannot risk the obligation to pay private school tuition if their children will not receive a scholarship as previously promised by the state."

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