Minn. Law Allows Church Schools To Get Public Funds

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Minnesota educators are pondering the potential impact of a little-discussed measure passed by the legislature that, for the first time, makes church-sponsored schools eligible to receive public funds for educating high-school dropouts and those at risk of dropping out.

So far, no sectarian private schools have received any funds under the provision, according to state officials.

Most educators are still studying the measure, moreover, and observers do not expect newly eligible schools to become involved with the program for a year or more.

Nevertheless, critics warn that the provision could lead a diversion of state money to sectarian schools and undermine the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.

Supporters, on the other hand, have called the new provision "one of the most innovative education decisions'' by the legislature in 1991.

"From the standpoint of funding education, it may be very significant," said Michael A. Ricci Sr., executive vice president of the Minnesota Federation of Citizens for Educational Freedom, a St. Paul-based lobbying group that helped push for the measure.

The provision was adopted in May as a narrowly tailored amendment to the state's existing High School Graduation Incentives Program.

The four-year-old incentives program allows certain students ages 12 to 21 to enroll in nonprofit private schools that contract with local school districts to provide education services. The program seeks to help students who have already dropped out of public schools or face other troubles, such as lagging in achievement or being chemically dependent.

Sectarian schools have been barred from the program because of constitutional concerns about providing government aid to religion.

Age Minimum Set

Under the change adopted this year, however, students who are at least 16 years old and who would otherwise qualify for the incentives program may enroll in church-sponsored schools if their local school districts are willing to contract with those institutions. The sectarian schools must not exclude students on religious grounds and must provide "nonsectarian educational services," according to the provision.

The 16-year age minimum for participating students in church-related schools was adopted on the theory that the provision would better withstand a constitutional challenge if it were limited to older students.

A separate Minnesota program that allows high-school juniors and seniors to attend college, including religious institutions, at school-district expense was upheld by a federal district judge last year as not violating the establishment clause.

The graduation-incentives program provides that 88 percent of the basic state funding received by a district for the participating student-currently about $3,500--be paid to the nonpublic school. The school district keeps the other 12 percent.

Under the existing program, at least 14 private nonsectarian schools are participating with public-school districts to educate at-risk pupils. Located mostly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, they include several innovative, storefront private schools.

Proponents of the provision adding religiously sponsored schools to the program insist they are not attempting a backdoor way to introduce vouchers or other privateschool-choice schemes.

"I am a strong supporter of the public schools," said Senator Lawrence J. Pogemiller, a Minneapolis Democrat who sponsored the measure. "The intent of this is to help a student who is going to drop out whose needs might be better met in a sectarian school. Some of the sectarian schools do a better job with certain types of students."

Separate Program Required?

Most observers think that contracts between public-school districts and religious schools are not likely to be signed immediately. Public educators may wait until they come across a specific student whom they believe would benefit from the program, proponents suggested.

Some private-school educators, though, may push more actively to establish contracts and enroll public-school students.

"We have three high schools that are very definitely interested," said Brother Edward Fallon, director of secondary education for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul- Minneapolis, where there are 11 Catholic high schools. Statewide, there are 30 private sectarian high schools, according to the C.E.F.

One major gray area Of the new law concerns whether it allows eligible students to enroll in a religious school's existing program or requires a special "nonsectarian" program to be developed.

Gene Johnson, alternative-program specialist with the state education department, said that the sectarian school's "site and curriculum would have to be free of religious influences'' in order to participate in the incentives program.

Most Catholic schools emphasize, however, that religion permeates their entire curriculum.

Senator Pogemiller said, "There is no disagreement that the public dollars cannot be used for religious purposes." But concerns about the constitutional limits, he argued, can be "worked out" in the contract between the public-school district and the sectarian school.

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Page 24

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