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Bennett Advises States To Review Church-School Aid

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Washington--States and districts "should carefully review" their Chapter 2-financed instructional aid in religious schools in relation to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision barring Chapter 1 remedial teachers from those schools, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett told the chief state school officers last week.

In a letter to the chiefs, he stated, "In the case of instructional services provided on private-school premises under Chapter 2, state and local officials should carefully review these instructional services in light of the Felton decision to determine whether they are so similar to those at issue in Felton as to require modification."

But Mr. Bennett said the Education Department would continue to allow districts to purchase equipment and materials with Chapter 2 block-grant funds for use in sectarian schools. He also said the Court's decision in Aguilar v. Felton does not necessarily apply to other federal programs in religious schools, notably special-education and bilingual-education aid.

The comments, in a Sept. 12 letter to the state chiefs containing guidance on Felton, were Mr. Bennett's first on the decision's possible effect on other programs. The Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 35 urban districts, recently warned: "It is only a matter of time before all federal programs on private-school premises are challenged."

Compliance Sought

Mr. Bennett repeated the message he had sent to the chiefs on Aug. 15--that school districts must "make every diligent effort" to comply with Felton "as soon as possible" but that he would support efforts to delay implementation of the decision.

Officials in many urban districts report that they are facing serious administrative problems, caught between the Court's decision and a Congressional mandate to provide equitable services to religious-school students.

In Felton, the Justices ruled that conducting Chapter 1 remedial classes in religious schools created an unconstitutional linking of government and religion--an interpretation Mr. Bennett has publicly criticized.

The secretary has said the decision fosters "divisiveness" and reveals the Justices' "fastidious disdain" for religion.

Such comments, and the Secretary's stated willingness to support delays in implementing the Felton decision, have been cited in civil suits filed against Mr. Bennett here and in Kansas City, Mo., by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group that supports immediate implementation of the decision.

Chapter 2 Advice

Mr. Bennett said he wrote the letter to state school chiefs in response to "an increasing number of questions from state and local officials" on the implications of Felton for all federal programs.

Since Felton did not specifically address the placement of equipment and materials in religious schools, he wrote, "it is the department's position that Chapter 2 funds may continue to be used for equipment and materials placed on private-school premises."

Chapter 2 authorizes $500 million in block grants to states and is distributed to districts based on a state-approved formula. According to case studies of 13 states by the General Accounting Office, the Congressional investigative agency, 50 percent of 1982-83 Chapter 2 funds went for "instructional materials and equipment," especially computers, and 25 percent went for salaries.

But Michael Casserly, a legislative associate with the Council of Great City Schools, said that because of the difficulty in differentiating between "instructional services" and "equipment and materials" such as computers, Mr. Bennett may be making a "false distinction."

A 1975 Supreme Court decision, Meek v. Pittenger, barred the loan of government-funded materials and equipment to private schools.

Other Programs

Mr. Bennett told the state chiefs that the ruling "need not have the effect of prohibiting on-premises services to private-school children in all other federal programs."

"With respect to programs under the Bilingual Education Act and the Education of the Handicapped Act, for example," he said, "a prohibition of on-premises instructional services may make it impossible to provide the instructional services required by the statutes in question."

The chief school officer in Michigan, Phillip E. Runkel, last month barred state or federal special-education aid in religious schools.

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