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Coalition Backs Measure To Prohibit Federal Aid for SectarianChild Care

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By Deborah L. Cohen

Washington--A coalition of education, religious, and civil-liberties groups is rallying behind a child-care measure that would prohibit the use of federal funds for sectarian child care.

At a Sept. 15 meeting here, leaders of major education groups and other members of the National Coalition for Public Education said they are urging lawmakers to back the "early-childhood education and development act."

That bill, which was approved by the House Education and Labor Committee in June and could reach the House floor this week, "meets the test of improving the quality and quantity of child-care and early-childhood-education programs, and in a manner that is constitutional," the group said in a statement.

The measure, HR 3, would allow churches to receive funds to operate nonsectarian child-care programs. But it includes a provision expressly barring the use of such aid for religious instruction.

In contrast, S 5, the "act for better child-care services" approved by the Senate, includes an amendment allowing federally subsidized vouchers to be used for religiously oriented child care.

"I don't see how anyone who claims to support the separation of church and state could support [a measure that is] so clear a violation," said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "Such an effort would cause real damage to our country's social fabric."

In view of estimates that churches and synagogues provide up to one-third of the nation's child care, said Judy Golub, assistant Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee, "it is important to consider what is the appropriate relationship between religious organizations and the federal government."

HR 3 provides for "good church-state separation," she argued.

Seeking Compromises

Although some religious organizations, including the U.S. Catholic Conference, have sought to ensure the widest possible latitude for church participation in the provision of child care, many education groups fear that allowing federal vouchers to support religious child care could set a dangerous precedent for public-school programs.

"We want to avoid an Aguilar-type situation," said Arnold F. Fege, director of governmental relations for the National pta. Mr. Fege was alluding to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1985 decision in Aguilar v. Felton. In that ruling, the Court barred the practice of placing public-school teachers in church-affiliated schools to provide Chapter 1 remedial services to eligible parochial-school students.

The church-state dispute, one of the factors that derailed child-care legislation in the last Congress, is likely to heat up when the House and Senate go to a conference committee to reconcile their child-care bills. Before then, however, House leaders must resolve a conflict between two committees that are backing different versions of HR 3. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1989.)

Negotiations continued last week in an attempt to forge a compromise between the House Education and Labor Committee's version, which would support direct grants for child-care providers, and the Ways and Means Committee's bill, which would add child-care funds to an existing block-grant program. If a compromise cannot be worked out, the issue may have to be resolved by the full House.

If the Congress backs a version that combines the two approaches, it should ensure the same church-state safeguards for block grants as for direct grants, said Isabel Garcia, a legislative specialist with the National Education Association.

"We would hope that Congress would be consistent," she said.

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