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Chapter 1 in Nonpublic Schools Challenged in Minnesota

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St Paul--Minnesota has joined a list of several states awaiting trials or decisions in lawsuits charging that Chapter 1 programs offered in sectarian schools are unconstitutional.

The legal fight began in a New York City federal court, where, in 1980, a three-judge panel upheld the constitutionality of the Chapter 1 programs (known as Title I programs until Congress renamed them last year) conducted in nonpublic schools. The programs provide part-time teachers' aides for remedial mathematics and reading instruction to both public and nonpublic stu-dents during school hours. The teachers are hired by the public school districts.

The New York ruling became what is known as the "prevailing decision" for similar cases that followed in Missouri, Louisville, Ky., and in New York again, this time in Brooklyn.

In each case, the plaintiffs are citizens' groups such as the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Unions or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. And in each case, they have argued that the Chapter 1 program should be found unconstitutional because nonpublic students are taught in a "religious setting" in their own schools.

Chapter 1 rules require that the program not be held in rooms containing religious symbols. In Minnesota, where the state Civil Liberties Union (mclu) recently filed suit against the Education Department, this has meant emptying one classroom per Catholic school of its crucifix and Bibles, and using it as "the Chapter 1 room," according to a Minneapolis elementary-school principal.

Busing Suggested

The mclu is not satisfied with this arrangement, suggesting instead that the nonpublic-school students be bused to a neutral site for instruction after school, the arrangement used by another Chapter 1 program for handicapped students.

The rules also state that the teachers' aides must be supervised by public-school personnel, not the principal or teachers from the nonpublic school.

In some cases, nonpublic-school principals have found it more practical to schedule and supervise Chapter 1 activities themselves.

Noting the recent controversy over the proposed tuition tax credits for parents of nonpublic-school students, Robert Tritz, coordinator of government activities for the Archdiocese of St. Paul in Minneapolis, said the Chapter 1 lawsuit is par for the course in matters of church versus state.

"There seems to have never been a law providing aid to nonpublic-school students and their parents that hasn't been challenged," he said.

The public-school districts have as much at stake as the nonpublic schools in this case, if not more, Mr. Tritz said.

An mclu victory would "diminish Title I programs all over the state," he said. "The cost of busing those kids to a neutral setting would come off the top of the allocation of federal money to each district."

As a result, the mclu would have its separation of church and state, but the students could lose an academically beneficial program that has operated in Minnesota since 1965, and operated well, Mr. Tritz said, through the "spirit," if not the "letter" of the law.

The mclu's busing suggestion, he added, would actually disrupt the program's equality between public and nonpublic schools. "You can't serve the nonpublic-school kids after school hours without asking public-school kids to be served after school, too," he said.

Linden Johnson, a federal programs consultant for the St. Paul Public Schools, agreed, saying the cost of maintaining a neutral site and busing students to it would cost "several thousand dollars" in each school district.

Currently, the Chapter 1 program costs the federal government $400 per student per year. In Minnesota, some 2,300 students participate in the program each year at a cost of $1.3 million. No extra tuition is charged to parents of Chapter 1 students.

Charles Wilson , a Washington lawyer who has been involved in all the Title I cases, said any of the four state disputes could reach state supreme courts, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court.

'A Matter of Principle'

Although a decision against the current system of delivering Chapter 1 services could damage the program, Mr. Wilson said the suits are "a matter of principle" only. "They simply don't want teachers paid with public funds to be teaching on the premises of a nonpublic school.''

Mr. Wilson said the current New York case has been awaiting a decision since May 25. Three weeks of hearings were held in the Missouri case last August, and two more weeks are scheduled in January. The trial may begin in January in the Minnesota case, and the Louisville suit "has been inactive for some time," he said.


Ms. Hanneman is a reporter for The Catholic Bulletin in St. Paul.

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