School vouchers dealt a new blow by Wisconsin ruling

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WASHINGTON — A Wisconsin appeals court has delivered another setback to school vouchers, striking down a $55 million Milwaukee program.

Under the planned voucher initiative passed by the state, private and parochial schools would have received $3,600 per student.

Instead, the state court shut down the program, ruling last week that government funds could not go to parochial schools.

The court said the program violated the Wisconsin Constitution's prohibition that no state money shall be "drawn from the treasury for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries."

The Aug. 22 ruling marks the second recent legal decision to strike down a voucher program. An Ohio court ruled in May that a similar program violated its state constitution.

Appeals are expected in both states.

Since both courts ruled that the programs violated state law and did not rule on federal grounds, the Ohio and Wisconsin decisions do not set any broad precedent in the national debate over vouchers.

Still, advocates on both sides of the issue plan to use these decisions to bolster their arguments when Congress begins to consider its own voucher proposals this fall.

Church-state watchdogs say the decisions mean that "judges are viewing these programs with great skepticism," said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department at the American Jewish Congress.

"This is a warning shot across the bow for those who think this is an easy constitutional issue," Stern said.

But supporters of vouchers say the rulings have not dimmed their hope for such programs.

"It's always better to win than lose, but this is a decision that relies exclusively on state constitutional grounds," said Marshall Breger, vice chairman of the Jewish Policy Center, a think tank affiliated with the National Jewish Coalition, a pro-Republican lobby.

"The times and tide are turning in our favor," said Breger, a law professor at Catholic University.

Both sides agree on at least one thing.

"Ultimately, this issue will be decided by the Supreme Court," Breger said.