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Transportation Aid for Nonpublic Students Debated

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Six hundred seventy-five dollars might make a car payment or two, but it may not buy a bus ride to school.

Just ask Eileen Kenavan. Like thousands of other parents of private school children across New Jersey, Ms. Kenavan received that amount in the mail last year--courtesy of her local public school district, which decided that providing a bus for those students would not be cost-effective.

State law entitles private school children to the same free, safe transportation to school that public school children get, but it caps school districts' annual obligation at $675 per pupil. If bids from districts' bus contractors exceed that amount, private school parents get a check instead.

But the check was not enough to get Ms. Kenavan's son a bus ride to St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, where he is in the 11th grade. For that, she had to pitch in an additional $140, persuade her son's school to match her contribution, and pester the local school board to find a lower bidder.

"It's a disgrace," said Ms. Kenavan, who works full time. "If I'm paying taxes, I should have bus transportation."

A Sticky Issue

Others say Ms. Kenavan is lucky she gets anything at all. Only twenty-seven states have policies that offer transportation to nonpublic school students, according to the U.S. Education Department's office of nonpublic education.

In a long series of rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld some forms of aid to nonpublic schools and barred others, generally allowing the aid if it has a clearly secular purpose. In a 1947 case, Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, the Court upheld New Jersey's law making transportation equally available to public and private school students.

But there and elsewhere, the issue continues to be a sticky one.

Some 36 states have provisions in their constitutions barring direct aid to nonpublic schools. In those states, many courts have ruled that providing transportation to private school students does not constitute direct aid and is permissible at the discretion of state or local officials. Some have even said that such students are entitled to that service if it is provided to public school students.

Other states take no clear position on the issue, and only a few states cut parents checks as New Jersey does.

Only in Idaho and Hawaii has transportation assistance been ruled unconstitutional. If a private school student rides a publicly funded bus to school in Idaho, the district must recover the costs from either the student's school or parent. Most Idaho districts avoid the practice altogether.

A Dollar Debate

As states and school districts cut corners to make ends meet, the argument often becomes as much financial as philosophical or legal. Private school families that thought they were entitled to transportation can find themselves out of the budget, out of a ride, and, once again, out in front of the perennial debate over aid to private schools.

Those in the nonpublic sector challenge the terms of the debate, arguing that private and parochial schools save taxpayers millions of dollars by educating children at their parents' expense.

"If transportation is the lifeblood of the nonpublic schools, and this is taken away, and the parent pulls the child out of private school--which happens--then the taxpayer is paying a heck of a lot more," said George Corwell, the associate director for education of the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

Kathleen G. Johnson, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, said there are about 200,000 children in the state attending nonpublic schools. At the state's average per-pupil expenditure of about $10,000, she contended, private schools save New Jersey taxpayers almost $2 billion a year.

A free bus ride to school, or a check for $675, "seems a reasonable acknowledgment of the vital role nonpublic schools play in educating the children of New Jersey," Ms. Johnson said.

But some public education officials have a different view.

For the current school year, approximately 54,000 New Jersey private school students received transportation to school from their districts, while some 32,000 others received so-called "aid in lieu of" checks.

Transportation assistance, combined with other aid--such as money for textbooks, special education, and health services--"amounts to well over $60 million" in annual state funding for private schools, said John Henderson, the associate director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

As for the claims that private schools save taxpayers money, "we've never, ever, given comfort to that argument," he said. "We want all those children. And we have the room, or we'll make the room."

He added that "the political reality is that now that [transportation aid has] been given, it will be very difficult to rescind."

Open Door in Alaska

When political decisions are made to expand or pare state aid to nonpublic schools, the debate often continues in the courts.

For example, in January 1994, two private school parents in Alaska filed a lawsuit seeking to require the state education department to continue paying for transportation for qualifying nonpublic school students.

Alaska law requires districts to transport nonpublic students under some circumstances, and state officials have interpreted the law as requiring that service for students who reside along a public school bus route.

While only a handful of Alaska districts have transported nonpublic students, the Fairbanks school district managed to secure state support for more than a decade to run a number of routes specifically for such students.

After another school district questioned the equity of this arrangement, the state decided that it violated the "direct benefits" clause of the Alaska constitution, which bars direct public aid to private schools. State officials informed all local superintendents that the state would no longer approve funding specifically for transporting nonpublic school students.

In their suit, the parents argued that providing transportation does not violate the constitutional prohibition, and that private school students are entitled to those services on an equal basis with public school students. State officials argued that the state law should be struck down as unconstitutional.

A state superior court ruled in favor of the parents, declaring that the law is constitutional and that private school students have an equal right to bus service.

The ruling restored the Fairbanks students' right to a free ride--and may also have primed the pump for others to request the service, according to Bill Wright, the state director of pupil transportation.

Alaska districts currently spend only about $5 million on transportation for nonpublic students. But the court ruling "really opens the door to other large districts," Mr. Wright said, and if they follow Fairbanks's example, costs could rise sharply.

The issue is unlikely to go away. While Mr. Wright said state officials have no plans to appeal the ruling to a higher state court, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union Foundation has threatened to file another suit challenging the use of public funds for transporting private school students.

In Connecticut, the state department of education recently ruled that the Stafford district had to provide buses for parochial-school students even on days when public schools were closed.

Parent Power

However, as in most states where nonpublic schools have gained some leverage, their advocates are seeking to make further inroads.

Connecticut's policy of providing only "in town" transportation to nonpublic students is no boon to diversity, said Peter Tacy, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. There is only one nonpublic high school in Hartford, the state capital, he noted, and that one is full.

"We have suggested to the legislature, in line with their various proposals for school choice and public-private initiatives, that if they are going to see these as ways to broaden opportunity, then they have to rethink the issue" of transportation, Mr. Tacy said.

If you are unable to bus childrenchildren outside the city limits, he said, "it's no solution."

Arguing that transportation is a health and safety issue, Mr. Corwell of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, meanwhile, has been pushing legislation that would take the busing issue out of districts' hands and authorize some other entity to conduct a more equitable bidding process.

Currently, he said, bus companies are aware of the New Jersey law and set their prices accordingly. Moreover, parents do not know until Aug. 1 if their children will have access to district bus service for the coming school year, giving them little time to scramble for transportation arrangements.

New Jersey's private school advocates also have complained that the $675 cutoff has not gone up in four years, despite rising costs. And while districts get state aid for each child entitled to bus transportation to a public or private school, that aid is limited to a district's per-pupil cost for public school students.

Private school advocates, in New Jersey and in other states, are counting on people like Ms. Kenavan.

"A big piece of it lies in parent power," said Sister Joan Sullivan, the principal of Trinity Academy in Caldwell, N.J.

This past year, Trinity Academy was notified by the West Essex school district that its students would not get any busing services. But a parent letter-writing campaign and a public meeting persuaded officials to provide buses next year.

"Our role as leaders," said the principal, "is to enable and empower our parents to demand what are their rights as tax~payers."

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