Church-State Issue : Court’s Rule Sends Tutors Into Streets

Times Education Writer

In Pittsburgh, the city school district has spent $250,000 for large vans that will be parked on the street outside parochial schools and used as classrooms.

In Minneapolis, the school system will bus children from 30 parochial schools to two vacant public schools where they will be taught one class for 45 minutes each day.

In Los Angeles, officials are considering plans to move teaching bungalows off the playgrounds of parochial schools and onto lots across the street.

Trying to Comply

All of these school districts are grappling with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has forced their teachers out of parochial schools and sometimes, literally, into the streets.

Passed down in July on a 5-to-4 vote, the ruling forbids public school teachers from tutoring needy students in religiously affiliated schools. At the same time, however, the court also upheld the federal education law which requires districts to tutor disadvantaged students on “an equitable basis” in both public and private schools.


Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, said the 1965 law served “a praiseworthy purpose” by providing $3.2 billion a year for extra instruction in reading and arithmetic. But the practice of sending public tutors into parochial schools “unduly entangles” government and religion, he said.

The ruling elicited a stormy response from Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who said the court’s “misguided decisions” have come to regard “entanglement with religion as something akin to entanglement with an infectious disease.”

180,000 Affected

Nonetheless, Bennett issued a directive last month that orders public school districts to comply with the decision. The order will force changes in tutoring for more than 180,000 parochial school children in the country who qualify for special help under federal poverty guidelines.

The court decision and Bennett’s directive have left public school officials with a dilemma: How can their teachers tutor these children without producing an “entanglement” with parochial schools?

In Pittsburgh, the school district has chosen to shuttle teachers around in one of nine vans.

Under this plan, a teacher will drive up to a parochial school and park the van. The several low-achieving students will come out from their religious school, hop into the van and get a 45-minute lesson in reading or arithmetic.

“We didn’t want to disrupt their (parochial children’s) school day by transporting them to another site,” said Pat Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh schools.

In this case, attorneys have said, the line separating church and state is the curb side. Parking the vans in the school parking lot or on a playground would violate the court ruling, Crawford noted.

The Pittsburgh program itself will not get under way for several months until the vans arrive.

“These are specially constructed vans with small classroom areas, and the auto manufacturers say they have been getting a lot of orders for them,” she said.

The Minneapolis district has chosen another common plan: rounding up the disadvantaged students from parochial schools and busing them to what the attorneys called a “neutral site.” In this case, the district has found two vacant public schools, one on the north side of the city and one on the south side.

But in Minneapolis this approach seems to have pleased neither Catholic educators nor parents.

Too Long a Ride

“The bus ride is far too long, as long as 20 minutes each way,” said Robert Tritz, an education official for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Since the tutoring lasts less than an hour, many parents question its value.

“I had four parents on the first day call to say they wanted to withdraw their children,” Tritz said. “The whole thing doesn’t make any educational or economic sense,” he added.

Public school officials in Minneapolis describe the busing program as a “temporary” measure and say they hope to be able to tutor the students in public schools nearer to the Catholic schools.

Federal officials say many schools have not yet devised a way to comply with the July ruling, but they expect most will come up with a plan similar to one in either Pittsburgh or Minneapolis.

“As we read it (the court decision), they either have to shuttle the teachers around the district or they have to shuttle the students around,” said William Kristol, an assistant to Bennett. “It’s clear there will be a lot of time and money wasted.”

Financial Problem

The costs of the program changes--for example, money to buy the vans in Pittsburgh--will be subtracted from the education programs available to both public and parochial needy students, Kristol said.

In the past decade, court rulings concerning parochial schools have turned on increasingly fine distinctions. In a 1977 case involving an Ohio education law, the Supreme Court said it was permissible for the state to give textbooks to parochial school students, but not school equipment such as a map. Left unanswered was a joking rejoinder from Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.): “What do you do about an atlas?”

The court’s recent ruling focused on a federal education law that originated with a proposal by President John F. Kennedy to create the first large-scale program of federal aid to education. But his education bill stalled in Congress because Kennedy, a Catholic, could not find an acceptable way to handle the nation’s parochial schools.

In 1965, however, President Lyndon B. Johnson fashioned a compromise that called for sending all the money to public school districts. They in turn would be required to provide equal levels of tutoring to disadvantaged children, whether they attended a public or private school.

Options for L.A.

The Los Angeles district, along with many throughout the nation, has not figured how to comply with the ruling yet.

“We still are pursuing a variety of options. We’re looking at parks, libraries and other facilities, with safety being our main concern,” said Pauline Hopper, an assistant superintendent in charge of the federal aid program.

The school district attorneys say that the court decision apparently permits parochial students to be taken into public schools for a brief tutoring session, but Hopper pointed out that most of the inner-city parochial schools are located near already overcrowded public schools.

Several years ago, the district purchased portable bungalow classrooms which were placed on playgrounds or parking lots of those parochial schools that qualified for tutoring under a federal poverty formula. Public teachers and aides had tutored the lowest achieving children in the public-owned bungalows, not in the religious schools.

“It’s clear that you can’t do that under the decision,” said Gail ImObersteg, director of federal liaison for the California Department of Education. “You could have the bungalow across the street or down the block, but not the grounds of the parochial school.”

Look to Vacant Lots

Hopper said lawyers and school officials in Los Angeles “are looking at the possibility” of moving some of the bungalows onto vacant lots near a parochial school.

St. Vincent’s School, a Catholic elementary school south of downtown Los Angeles, has an empty bungalow on its playground.

Sister Loraine Polacci, the principal, noted that there is an empty piece of land outside the school fence near the intersection of Figueroa Street and Adams Boulevard.

“If you moved it out there, on a busy street, that would be OK, according to the court, which is crazy,” she said.

All but a handful of the school’s 360 children are Latino, and many come from very poor families, the principal said.

“Our children are the victims of this. We’ve got an empty bungalow right here that we are not allowed to use for anything. And our parents don’t want their children bused away to another school for part of the day,” she said.

Going to College?

The answer to St. Vincent’s problem may lie next door. Under federal guidelines, school attorneys say the parochial children may be permitted to get their tutoring at a nearby Catholic college or hospital. While Catholic schools for children are considered to be religious institutions by the court, Catholic colleges are not, they said.

Many school districts are moving cautiously, because they don’t want to again step over the fine line between church and state.

The Grand Rapids, Mich., school district was one of those cited in the Supreme Court ruling because it had leased classrooms in parochial schools in an unsuccessful attempt to separate public tutoring from the religious schools.

“We lost in a lower court on that, and we appealed to the Supreme Court and lost too,” said Don Lennon, a program director in Grand Rapids. As an alternative, the district decided to bus the parochial children to a public school building where they were given special classes.

However, an attorney involved in the first case noted that the district was “segregating” the public and private school children.

“Our school board doesn’t want to take the gamble of losing another court case,” Lennon said. “So we’ve decided for now to shut down the whole program.”