The Rhode Island Education Department has agreed to strict limits on the use of federal block. grants to buy equipment for parochial schools-a model that could spread to other states as a way of ensuring that I the funds are spent for secular purposes.
The new restrictions, adopted as part of the settlement of a lawsuit by i the American Civil Liberties Union, would bar Chapter 2 expenditures for computers, videocassette recorders, photocopiers, overhead projectors, or other equipment that is “divertible” for “religious purposes” by parochial schools.
Exceptions would be made only if devices were modified with “technological or mechanical means” to prevent sectarian uses. Other instructional materials and services will not be affected. At the same time, Rhode Island’s parochial schools will be allowed to keep equipment already provided by Chapter 2 over the past five years.
The consent agreement was also signed by lawyers for the U.s. Education Department and parochial school parents. No obstacles are foreseen to the plan’s approval by U.S. District Judge Francis J. Boyle.
The case, Taft v. Pontarelli, reflects the dilemma of public-school officials throughout the country, who are legally required to administer federal aid to parochial-school students in their jurisdictions, but who are uncertain about constitutional ways of doing so, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Aguilar v. Felton.
That ruling, involving Chapter 1 compensatory education, answered some questions but raised others about how to avoid state support for religious educational institutions.
Although all sides in the Rhode Island Island case expressed satisfaction with the outcome, some differences remain over its implications.
Comouters in Doubt
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the A.C.L-U., said the state’s new regulations would effectively rule out federal subsidies for computers in sectarian schools. “At this point, I don’t think there is the technological capacity to modify the equipment to prevent its being used for religious purposes,” he said.
But Forrest Avila, a lawyer for the state education department, said inventors are exploring ways to modify personal computers so that they may run only specified programs. Also, “dumb terminals” --screens connected with a remote mainframe computer, allowing instruction to be controlled from outside a parochial school-are a currently available option, he noted.
Charles H. Wilson, who represented the parochial-school parents, agreed with Mr. Avila about the availability of technology. But he added: “It gets a bit bizarre. I don’t know of any effective ways to teach religion on a computer.”
No Rhode Island school has been accused of using equipment bought with Chapter 2 money for religious purposes, according to Richard Harrington of the state education department’s federal-programs office.
About 19 percent of Rhode Island’s $1.9 million Chapter 2 allocation this year will go to 72 parochial schools, with most of the money spent on library books, Mr. Harrington said.
ANo Legal Precedent
While the settlement sets no legal precedent, “most districts will be moving toward something like this,” Mr. Avila predicted.
“Hopefully, it will be a moral precedent precedent” that other states will adopt, added Joseph Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is pressing a similar lawsuit in Louisiana, Helms v. Clausen. (See Education Week, Dec. II, 1985.) Based on reports from chapters of his group throughout the country, Mr. Conn said, monitoring of how parochial schools use equipment financed by the $500-million Chapter 2 program is minimal.
Regardless of whether other states follow Rhode Island’s lead voluntarily, the consent agreement is likely to encourage lawsuits elsewhere, said a source close to the case who asked not to be identified.
The U.S. Education Department, although “very pleased with the settlement,” is not endorsing it as a model for Chapter 2 administrators elsewhere, according to General Counsel Wendell L. Willkie 2nd.
“It’s not really for us to determine the precise form of implementation,” he said. “In Rhode Island, as a practical matter, the parties felt this was fair and equitable and didn’t place on them a lot of burdensome constraints. But parties in other states might feel differently”
The Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981, which consolidated 28 federal aid programs under Chapter 2 block. grants, limits the department’s ability to tell state and local education officials how to administer the program.
Instead, it has issued “non-regulatory guidance” on what the law requires. The guidelines, last updated in July 1983, advise school districts of their responsibility to ensure that funds provided to private schools are spent for “secular, neutral, and nonideological” purposes.
According to the E.D.'S interpretation, districts’ monitoring of compliance with the law must involve more than merely obtaining a signed assurance from a private school that a computer, for example, is being used only for secular instruction.
Philip H. Rosenfelt, an E.D. assistant general counsel, acknowledged that some districts have failed go beyond “getting assurances.” Others, he said, are using methods that include periodic on-site visits and prior review of instructional materials
In a nationwide survey for the department by S.R.l. International, released last winter, 42 percent of Chapter 2 coordinators reported some form of monitoring for religious bias.
Another recent study, conducted by Policy Associates Inc., indicated that district officials usually believed that signed assurances were sufficient to meet their monitoring obligation.
Mr. Rosenfelt said that the department is giving “fairly high priority” to a revision of its non-regulatory guidance in the coming months. “It’s not a closed book. We’re trying to look at various suggestions for how to improve monitoring to make sure Chapter 2 funds are used for secular purposes, while avoiding excessive entanglement” of church and state.
The issue is also expected to receive extended consideration by the Congress next year, as it works on reauthorization of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act.
will press for added “guarantees” that both Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 don’t end up subsidizing religion, as an alternative to “the no-strings- attached approach the Reagan Administration has taken.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1986 edition of Education Week as Chapter 2 Limits Set in Suit Settlement