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A school district created to serve special-education students in an Orthodox Jewish community in New York State violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion, a state appeals court has ruled.

A panel of the state appellate division ruled 4 to 1 on Dec. 31 that the Kiryas Joel Village School District, created by the state legislature in 1990, violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Kiryas Joel is a Hasidic enclave of some 11,000 people in upstate Orange County that has its own municipal government. Most children in the village attend private religious schools, but a dispute arose over how to provide the much more expensive educational services needed by children with disabilities.

Village leaders declined to send those students to the nearby Monroe-Woodbury school district, so state officials created the special school district to serve Kiryas Joel.

The special district was challenged by the New York State School Boards Association, and was declared unconstitutional by a state trial judge. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

In the majority opinion in Grumet v. Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District, Justice John Casey wrote that the district "is significantly likely to be perceived by adherents of the Satmarer Hasidim as an endorsement, and by nonadherents as a disapproval, of their individual religious beliefs.''

The New York City board of education has given its unanimous approval to a school-choice plan proposed last fall by Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez.

The board voted this month to approve the plan that will allow parents in the city the right to choose any public school for their children, provided space is available.

The open-enrollment plan applies only to the city's 633 elementary and 179 intermediate schools, which are divided into 32 community school districts. Magnet and
other choice options are already available at the high school level.

The key policy change is that superintendents of community school districts will no longer be able to veto student transfers out of their districts. However, some observers have warned that the new choices may prove "illusory'' for many students, because many of the best public schools are already filled to capacity and the open-enrollment plan lacks any provision for transportation.

Nonetheless, Mr. Fernandez said that the board's approval was an important step. He first proposed the choice plan last September, and it will take effect next fall. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1992.)

"As I have always maintained, choice is not a panacea,'' the chancellor said in a written statement. "This is not a program for some students or for only some schools, but a commitment to creativity, to innovation, and to break-the-mold strategies.''

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