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O'Malley Is 'Private' Advocate In Public-Dominated Agency

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Charles J. O'Malley is an executive assistant to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell on matters regarding nonpublic education. He is the head of the Education Department's office for private education, in which capacity he acts as an "ombudsman" for the interests of teachers and students in these institutions.

Tom Mirga recently interviewed Mr. O'Malley about his position and his views on a number of private-education matters, including tuition tax credits.

QWhat are your responsibilities as Secretary Bell's chief adviser on private education?


AMy primary responsibility is to make sure that private-school students participate equitably in federally funded programs like Chapters 1 and 2. That is still one of our major purposes.

But when I was first interviewed for the position, Secretary Bell asked me to explore ways of improving communication between the department and all components of private education, not just the old, established schools, but also the fundamentalist and evangelical schools. He wanted me to find out what's on their minds and to see how they might be brought into the education picture.

At the same time, he asked me to explore ways to improve the relationships between the major public- and private-school organizations. Tuition tax credits were another initiative that we were supposed to work closely with the Secretary and the Administration on. Finally, I was to serve as a major policy adviser to the Secretary on private-education issues.


QHas the focus of the office changed much since the current Administration came into office?


AI think our role has broadened, partially because of the Administration's interest in private education, but also partially because many of the problems that existed 10 to 15 years ago with respect to private-school-student participation in federal programs have softened or vanished.

For the most part, the states and the districts are doing a reasonably good job. There are still some trouble spots, but nothing of the magnitude of a few years ago. Therefore, we've been able to branch out.


QI understand that you had 'hands-on' experience trying to solve some of those problems when you worked for the Catholic schools and, later, for the commissioner of education in Florida.


AYes. For a number of years, I was federal-program coordinator for the Florida Catholic Conference. Then, as a result of that experience, I was hired by [Commissioner of Education Ralph D.] Turlington in 1976.

One of the first things that we did was to set up what we called our ad-hoc committee. Four or five times each year, Mr. Turlington met with the officers of the Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools, usually over coffee and doughnuts.


QWhat sorts of things would you discuss?


AProspective legislation, issues such as the transfer of records from private to public schools. That was one of the major problems we encountered. If parents took their children out of a private school owing a considerable amount of tuition, the only recourse the school had if it wanted to collect was to hold on to the students' records. Because of the frequency of these situations, the public schools sought legislation that would have required the private schools to turn the records over. But after discussing the matter, the commissioner decided not to support the legislation.

At about the same time, we encountered difficulty determining how many private-school students there were in the state because the registration law on the books basically required the private schools to provide us only with their name, rank, and serial number.

All we could do was to give estimates of how many private-school students there were. But through discussions in the ad hoc group, we agreed to change the term "registration" to "data-based survey," and right away that removed the onus of state regulation of private schools. So all of a sudden, it looked as if we had a lot of new students and schools in Florida, but in effect it was the old schools that hadn't registered before.


QSo you were a troubleshooter of sorts. Are you doing the same kind of thing now?


AYou could say that. A good example is the Louisville, Neb., situation, where the Rev. Everett Sileven has been in and out of jail [for keeping a nonaccredited school open despite court orders not to do so.]

Through our series of coffee klatches, we were able to get the national leadership of the Christian schools to work with their constituencies in Nebraska and to ask for restraint.

That was especially important last October, when the conflict heated up to the point that we were afraid of violence. Secretary Bell issued a public statement asking both sides to use caution and restraint, and a large number of the public- and private-school organizations called on their members to slow down, to take a look and see what was happening. The fundamentalist and evangelical leaders were very helpful in trying to resolve this problem.


QYou just mentioned your office's series of coffee klatches. What are they and how did they get started?


AAbout a year ago, we hosted a conference here in Washington for about 100 public- and private-education leaders. One of the topics on our agenda was private-school governance. On our panel we had one of the pastors from Nebraska, a representative from the Education Commission of the States (ecs), representatives from several state departments of education and the National Conference of State Legislatures, and representatives from the Christian Law Association and the Council on American Private Education (cape).

The panel proved to be such a success that on the second morning of the session, when we gave the participants the option of breaking up into small groups, the vast majority asked us if we could continue the previous day's discussion.

A number of the participants commented at the end of the conference that something like this should be continued. Well, two weeks later, some of the education-association representatives got together with me over breakfast and we came away with the feeling that some type of meeting series would be the way to go.


QWho attends the coffee klatches and what do they discuss?


AThe first meeting was sometime in June last year, three days after the Administration sent its first tuition tax-credit bill up to the Hill. The climate was not exactly ideal for the beginning of such a project, but we decided to go ahead and invite representatives of about 14 or 15 organizations like the Council of Chief State School Officers, the elementary- and secondary-school principals' associations, ecs, cape, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the U.S. Catholic Conference. We also also invited representatives from the American Association of Christian Schools, the Association of Christian Schools International, and Accelerated Christian Education.

Secretary Bell opened up the first session. It was tense, but we got through it alive. Basically, we were able to decide that it was rainy outside, that the coffee and doughnuts were good, and that we should set a date for the next meeting.


QWhat were some of the major issues dividing the public- and private-school organizations?


ATax credits, naturally. But also, there seemed to be a general concern on the part of the public-school educators that private education was out to do them in. The private-school educators expressed similar concerns that public education was out to do them in. That was the main reason we decided to try this. We wanted to get them to sit down and talk things out in the hope that some of these myths would disappear.


QWhat other sorts of topics did you discuss in subsequent meetings?


AAt one meeting, we discussed the Nebraska situation in depth. Both sides, if you want to call them sides, gave their reactions to the arrest and confrontation going on.

At subsequent meetings, we brought in representatives from state education departments and state private-school associations to talk about their relationships with each other. They'd bring up problem areas and discuss how they resolved their differences.

I guess those types of issues pretty much took up our time. There are no formal agendas and no set schedule of meetings. We discuss whatever they want to talk about.


QHave the coffee klatches provided you with new insights that might help you smooth over some of the difference between public and private schools?


ARight now our office is in the process of identifying model states where relationships between public and private education are pretty good. We know that there are at least seven or eight states where things are moving relatively smoothly. Again, there are problems, but at least in these states there is a vehicle by which to address these problems.

The next step is to identify the commonalities among these states; what it is that makes these states unique. We--and I don't mean just the Education Department, but all of us involved in these meetings--want to pass this information along to other states.

These organizations are taking the initiative for this project. The education-association leadership is trying to promote good working relationships between public and private education because, frankly, they're fed up with having to pay such a large aspirin-tablet bill. They'd like to see some of these problems disappear.

If both sides can be frank with each other, we'll see better working relationships in the future. I think back to one of the ad hoc meetings we had in Florida. Mr. Turlington came in and basically chewed out the private-school leadership for the type of advertising many of the schools were conducting. He said, "If you have a product to sell, sell it, but don't knock the opposition." They took him seriously, changed their advertising techniques, and right away some of the tension in the districts left.

As long as they're talking, ironing out their minor problems, they have a good chance of staying away from major problems. We want to get other states to move in that direction.


QYou noted earlier that the public-school community believes that the Administration and the private schools are out do them in, and that the tuition tax credits and education-voucher proposals are evidence of this threat. Would you care to comment on this perception?


AI agree that many public-school educators feel that the Administration is pro-private education. But that doesn't mean that the Administration is anti-public education.

If you look at enrollment data in private schools nationally, it appears that between 60 and 70 percent of the nation's private-elementary-school students go on into public junior and senior high schools. I know in Florida that three out of every four Catholic-elementary-school students went on into public junior and senior high schools.

We are talking about the same child. The approaches may be somewhat different, the methods somewhat different, but I think our best bet is to try to work together for the good of the children.


QHas the push for tuition tax credits helped widen the gap between public and private education?


AI think that there will always be divisive issues. People get angry with each other, but that doesn't mean that they can't work together. It's just like a family.


QThe Administration has stated repeatedly that passage of the tuition tax-credit bill will be beneficial to education in general because it will foster competition between public and private schools. Does the Administration have any evidence to support this notion?


AI don't know if this is the answer, but in early 1970's there was a major conference involving metropolitan public and private schools. One of the chief observations drawn during that conference was that the areas passing bond issues and other public-school initiatives were those in which there was a good, healthy relationship between public and private education.

There certainly is nothing official about that finding, but it would seem to me that if there is a good healthy private-school system and good healthy public-school system, the community is going to benefit.

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