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School Voucher Ruling Eased

A federal judge who created turmoil by holding up a state-funded voucher program just as the school year began has reversed himself. He has decided to allow some students to attend private schools with vouchers this year.

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

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

About 4,000 students from kindergarten through sixth grade were to receive up to $2,500 in tuition vouchers so they can attend private or religious schools at taxpayer expense.

Bert Holt, a member of a pro-voucher group, estimated Oliver's ruling would keep about 300 students from receiving vouchers.

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.

On Tuesday, Oliver granted a request from voucher opponents to suspend the program until a trial determines whether it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

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."

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.

Oliver, in his ruling on Friday, 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.

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

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