Published Online:

Michigan District's Program for Private-School Pupils

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A $3-million program through which the Grand Rapids, Mich., public schools provided supplemental instruction to private-school students was found unconstitutional last week by a federal district judge.

U.S. District Judge Richard A. Enslen, ruling last Monday in Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Board of Education of Grand Rapids, found that the program "advances religion and fosters an excessive [state] entanglement with religion" in violation of the First Amendment.

Within hours of the decision, the Grand Rapids school board voted to take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati.

Under the arrangement, which served about 10,000 private-school students last year, the public school system leased space in private schools and provided teachers for remedial and "enrichment" courses that are also available in public schools. The program, which was sanctioned by the state department of public instruction, was supported with local and state money.

'Shared-Time Programs'

Such "shared-time" programs are widespread in Michigan, according to officials there. On two occasions, Michigan state courts have upheld "shared time," on the conditions that the public schools retained control of the programs; that the courses were strictly secular in nature; and that the programs supplemented, rather than replaced, the private schools' own courses of study.

Apparently only a few other states provide for such extensive instructional services, although many provide transportation, textbooks, special education, and other services to private-school children.

Since the mid-1970s, the Grand Rapids school district has provided what school officials describe as "supplemental" services to local nonpublic schools, most of which are Roman Catholic or Lutheran. Last year, approximately 40 nonpublic schools participated.

The school district rented classroom space and supplied about 470 teachers for physical education, remedial classes in reading and mathematics, and enrichment courses in art and music.

After-school recreational classes also have been offered.

The public schools retained control of the content of the courses and of the teachers involved, many of whom also worked part time in public schools, according to William S. Farr, a lawyer for the city school board.

"We weren't providing anything that the private schools had offered," said John Dow, now superintendent of schools in Grand Rapids. "These were extra services."

'Child-Welfare Theory'

The program was "built on the child-welfare theory," said Phillip E. Runkel, Michigan's superintendent of public instruction, who was superintendent in Grand Rapids in the mid-1970's. "We thought it enriched children's lives. It did not interfere with religious instruction, and it was not religious in nature."

Grand Rapids, with large Catholic and Lutheran communities, has had ''a long tradition of cooperation" between public and private schools, Mr. Runkel noted. As many as 40 percent of the school-age children in the district attend parochial and other private schools, he said.

Mr. Runkel estimated that about 100 of Michigan's more than 500 districts have had similar arrangements with local private schools.

Property-tax referendums in some of those districts may be jeopardized by the decision, he added. "It's not the school board's fault, but any time you take away services, people don't like it."

A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the national organization that challenged the "shared-time" arrangement, said: "It's a very strong decision. There was lots of entanglement between the public school administration and the religious schools."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented