A federal judge who created turmoil by holding up a state-funded voucher program just as the school year began reversed himself today, allowing most students involved in the controversy to attend private schools with vouchers this year.
U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. ruled that elementary school students who participated 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.
About 4,000 students from kindergarten through sixth grade were to receive up to $2,500 in tuition vouchers for schools in Cleveland. Court records show that 587 students were expected to join the program this fall.
Oliver said the new arrangement, which rolls back a ruling he made Tuesday, will last only one semester or until a final judgment is reached in a lawsuit claiming the program violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Oliver set a Dec. 13 trial date for the lawsuit brought by civil liberties groups and other organizations.
On Tuesday, Oliver granted a request from voucher opponents to suspend the program until a trial, saying they had a strong argument that the program is unconstitutional because it appears to have the "primary effect of advancing religion."
Most of the 56 schools that participate are religious institutions.
Today's ruling didn't satisfy either side.
"I'm stunned. There's absolutely no logic to this decision. Either the program is right or wrong," said David Zanotti, chairman of a pro-voucher group called the School Choice Committee. "He's still jerking around the lives of several hundred children."
Voucher opponents said they 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."
The four-year-old pilot program, which provides tuition money for children of poor families, is the only one of its kind in Ohio. Its budget this year is $11.2 million.