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1,000 Slots at Catholic Schools in NYC Offered to Public Students

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A plan that would move about 1,000 students from the severely overcrowded New York City public schools to private religious schools gathered momentum last week, although Chancellor Rudy F. Crew officially distanced himself from it.

The idea, originally proposed by Cardinal John J. O'Connor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, has been floated in the district for years. But it took off earlier this month with an endorsement from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The mayor's statement came as the 1.1 million-student district found itself a staggering 91,000 students above capacity. Administrators are struggling desperately to find room for them, and classes are being held in stairwells, locker rooms, and old factories. ("Enrollment Surge Stretches Schools' Limits," Sept. 11, 1996.)

Following the mayor's announcement, officials worked throughout the week to overcome the legal hurdles involved in sending public school students to religious schools. The plan calls for 1,000 academic underachievers to transfer to Catholic and other religious schools in the city.

News of the idea brought quick opposition from civil liberties groups, notably the New York City-based National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty and the New York City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Both groups raised concerns that the program would violate federal and state constitutional provisions that forbid paying for religious education with public money. Those concerns also lay behind the unwillingness of Mr. Crew and William C. Thompson, the school board president, to involve the district's administration in such a plan.

"In reviewing the offer, we discovered that the plan was to expand the opportunity for privately funded scholarships to support free tuition, to parochial and private schools," Mr. Crew said in a statement. "We wish Mayor Giuliani and the business community well in their efforts to raise money for this purpose. However, that is not the mission of the chancellor of the New York City public schools."

To meet the funding issue, a number of businesses stepped forward last week and offered to pay the tuition for hundreds of failing students. Officials of the ACLU said private funding might pass constitutional muster, but they contended that the mayor's office must remain on the sidelines.

"The government would have to remain neutral," said Norman Siegel, the executive director of the local ACLU. He vowed to monitor the involvement of the mayor's office in the program.

"If the mayor's office is [in] up to its ears, then it's constitutionally suspect," Mr. Siegel said. "If they've only got their toes in, then it's not as suspect."

The New York City plan resembles recent efforts in other urban districts that have sought either to handle severe overcrowding or to give parents of poor families greater control over their children's education.

Similar Efforts

In Milwaukee, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation supplies money for low-income students to attend religious schools.

The foundation's involvement came as an attempt to extend to religious schools the city's private school voucher program became tied up in the courts.

The state-funded program provides school vouchers to low-income families. Money from the foundation allowed students who were scheduled to participate in the expanded program, but were barred by a court injunction, to enroll in religious schools. ("Blocked by Court, Milwaukee's Voucher Program Gets Reprieve," Sept. 6, 1995.)

And in Houston, overcrowding in the 200,000-student district has led officials there to propose contracting with private schools to help handle the overflow. ("Houston Looks at Private Schools To Ease Overcrowding," Aug. 7, 1996.)

Houston administrators met last week with private school educators to discuss the plan.

Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, based in Germantown, Md., said private schools may prove a valuable option for crowded school districts.

"At a time when the school-age-population boom is causing classroom chaos," he said, "it makes no sense whatsoever to construct new schools while classrooms in neighborhood nonpublic schools have empty seats."

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