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Judge Declares Wisconsin’s School Choice Program Constitutional

August 7, 1990

MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ A program that would let poor Milwaukee children attend private schools at state expense has been declared constitutional by a state judge, apparently clearing the way for it to begin this fall.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Susan Steingass ruled Monday that the state’s school choice program was legal because it served to improve education quality and thus met the ″public purpose″ requirement of the Wisconsin Constitution.

″I conclude that education is a public purpose and that the program is the Legislature’s reasonable assessment of how to improve the quality of education to the benefit of the entire state,″ Ms. Steingass wrote.

In addition, the judge ruled that State School Superintendent Herbert Grover, who must administer the program but has publicly opposed it, exceeded his authority in demanding certain requirements of participating private schools, including complex forms that are difficult to fill out.

She ordered Grover to redraft his the forms or face further court action.

Grover did not immediately return a telephone message left at his home Monday night seeking comment on the decision.

The school choice program, approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tommy Thompson last spring, provides up to $2,500 in state funds per pupil to let poor, inner-city Milwaukee schoolchildren attend private schools.

The state budget includes $2.5 million for the program this year, meaning that the program could accommodate 1,000 students.

It is believed to be the first of its kind in the country and has drawn praise from the Bush administration.

″Judge Susan Steingass made the right decision - one in favor of our children,″ Thompson said Monday.

Critics of the program, including Grover and two teachers’ unions, claim the plan undermines public education and places pupils in private schools that are not fully accountable to the state.

Supporters of the program said it provides poor parents with another choice to improve their children’s education and does not force participation.

Clint Bolick, an attorney for the Washington-based Landmark Legal Center Foundation for Civil Rights, said the judge’s decision ″was a slam-dunk for parental choice in education.″

″It will stand up very well under any appeal,″ Bolick said, adding that he doubted whether opponents would have enough time to attempt to legally block the program before it begins in the next few weeks.

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