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Court Strikes Down School Voucher Program

December 4, 1994

SAN JUAN, Puerto (AP) _ A court has struck down the largest school voucher program in the United States, leaving officials in this U.S. commonwealth searching for other ways to help the 2,013 poor students it benefits.

Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled that a program that gives public school students vouchers to attend private schools violates the commonwealth’s constitution, which prohibits providing public funds to private institutions.

But Gov. Pedro Rossello vowed to seek alternatives to his administration’s voucher program, which will end after the current school year.

″The decision of the Supreme Court goes contrary to the interests of the children of our neediest families, who see ... a good education as an element of progress and hope,″ Rossello said in a written statement last week.

Jose Eligio Velez, president of the Teachers Association which filed the court challenge, hailed Wednesday’s court decision as protecting the public school system, The San Juan Star reported.

″This law intended to disguise as free school choice the beginning of privatization and the elimination of public education,″ Velez was quoted as saying in Friday’s editions.

Under the program, the commonwealth government paid a secular or religious private school $1,500 toward the cost of educating a public school student whose family earned less than $18,000 a year. The tab this school year was $2.7 million for 2,013 students.

The court ruling doesn’t affect that part of the program under which low- income public school students transferred to the public school of their choice. The government’s cost this year was $19 million for 12,677 students.

The Teachers Association, the largest public school teachers’ group in Puerto Rico, filed suit days after the program started in Septebmer 1993.

San Juan Superior Court ruled in favor of the teachers in April and ordered the government to halt the program. Rossello’s administration appealed to the Supreme Court. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was considered unlikely.

The only other U.S. school voucher program is in Milwaukee, where since 1990 poor children have been given state money to attend non-religious private schools. About 800 children participate, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C. law firm that has represented Puerto Rican and other parents in support of school choice.

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