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Number of Private Students Served By Chapter 1 Increases, G.A.O. Finds

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WASHINGTON--The number of private school students receiving federal Chapter 1 remedial-education services has rebounded nearly to its level in 1985, the year the U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice of sending public school teachers to religious schools to provide the supplemental lessons, the General Accounting Office has found.

In a report to Congress, the G.A.O. said the increase was due largely to Congress's decision to set money aside specifically to help school districts pay for alternative ways of serving students in church-affiliated schools who are entitled to Chapter 1 services.

In its 1985 opinion in Aguilar v. Felton, the High Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for school districts to send their employees to religious schools to provide Chapter 1 services.

In the year following the Felton decision, the number of private school students participating in the Chapter 1 program dropped by 34 percent nationwide, from 185,000 to 123,000, as states and districts scrambled to develop new means of providing the lessons.

By the 1991-92 school year, however, the number of private school students receiving Chapter 1 help had increased to 168,168, or 91 percent of the level served prior to the Felton decision, according to the G.A.O.

The total number of private school students eligible for Chapter 1 help is unknown.

"Most states cited the availability of additional funds as a factor that enabled them to provide services to more private school students,'' the report said.

Costs Reimbursed

In 1988, Congress authorized funding to reimburse school districts for certain capital costs stemming from compliance with the Felton decision.

Common ways of complying with the decision include teaching the lessons in mobile vans or portable classrooms, renting neutral sites, and installing in church schools computer systems that are paid for separately and that do not require a public school employee to be present.

Since the 1989-90 school year, districts have received about $82 million in federal funds to cover costs related to the alternative methods. Most of the funds have gone to lease and maintain vans, which the G.A.O. said has become the most frequently used means of serving children in religious schools.

In 10 large states with many Chapter 1 eligible students, the G.A.O. found that 41 percent of such children from private religious schools were being served in vans. In those same states, 19 percent of the students were being served in portable classrooms and another 19 percent were being served via computer.

Many school district officials interviewed by the G.A.O. said the quality of Chapter 1 instruction has not been affected by the use of new delivery systems. Some teachers said students enjoyed taking a break from their daily routine to go to vans for the remedial help.

The report cited two major reasons why the number of students being served has not returned to its pre-Felton level. Some private schools have chosen not to participate, it said, and many parents will not permit their children to leave school premises to receive the federal services.

Federal Lawsuits

The G.A.O. report did not discuss several legal challenges that have been filed against the Education Department and some school districts over the alternative delivery systems.

For example, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group based in suburban Washington, filed several suits in federal court over the delivery of Chapter 1 services to religious school students, including one suit that challenged the special federal appropriation. That case is pending.

Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, said the High Court's Felton decision had been "highjacked'' by Congress and school districts.

"They went to other alternatives that are just as bad constitutionally and cost even more than the program cost before,'' he said. "We feel the taxpayers got a bad deal, and it's still an unconstitutional program.''

The report, "Compensatory Education: Additional Funds Help More Private Schools Receive Chapter 1 Services,'' is available from the General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20884-6015; (202) 512-6000.

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