Current Events

August 01, 1993 15 min read

Court’s Decisions Raise Questions For Public Schools

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in June that school districts must give religious groups the same access to school facilities after hours afforded to other community organizations.

Specifically, the court ruled that a New York state school district violated the free speech rights of an evangelical Christian group by refusing to let it use an auditorium to show a film series on Christian family values. “The principle that has emerged from our cases is that the First Amendment forbids the government to regulate speech in ways that favor some viewpoints or ideas at the expense of others,” wrote Associate Justice Byron White for the Court in Lamb’s Chapel vs. Center Moriches Union Free School District.

Lamb’s Chapel was backed in the dispute by several organizations that usually oppose the presence of religious groups in public schools, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is a decision that was narrowly written, but it was a significant victory for free speech,” says Phillip Gutis, an ACLU spokesman.

Jay Sekulow, who argued the case for Lamb’s Chapel before the justices, says the Court “has clearly stated that religious speech must not be censored from the marketplace of ideas.” Sekulow is the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a public-interest law firm associated with Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster.

Lawyers for school groups say because Justice White’s opinion was narrowly tailored to the facts of the case, they are unsure how far districts now must go to accommodate religious groups that want to use facilities after regular hours. For example, Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, questions whether the ruling may open the way for private groups to demand access to schools for baccalaureate services tied to graduation ceremonies—a hotly debated, unresolved legal issue.

In fact, the graduation prayer issue was one the court chose not to take up during its last term; it let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that approved a student-initiated invocation and benediction in a Texas school district. The appellate panel concluded that “a majority of students can do what the state acting on its own cannot do to incorporate prayer in public high school graduation ceremonies.”

Backers of prayer at public school graduation ceremonies immediately claimed a victory. But supporters of strict church-state separation said their foes were reading too much into the High Court’s action (or inaction), and they vowed to continue their fight against prayer at graduations.

Says Gregory of the school boards association: “We needed some help, and we didn’t get it.”

High School Reform Project Goes Elementary

One of the nation’s most prominent high school reform initiatives, the Coalition of Essential Schools, is branching out into the elementary grades.

Teachers, parents, and administrators from 18 states gathered in New York City last spring to launch a national network of elementary schools based on the coalition’s ideas. The conference was sponsored by the Center for Collaborative Education, a network of reform-oriented New York City public schools that is a local chapter of the coalition. Seven of its 16 members are elementary schools.

“We just think, at this point in time, that it’s really important to have a K-12 outlook,” says Priscilla Ellington, co-director of the center, which, in December, received a one-year, $150,000 planning grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund to launch the elementary school network.

The organizers hope to publish a newsletter focused on elementary school reform; organize conferences, workshops, and site visits at coalition elementary schools; and develop a system of short-term residencies for teams of elementary teachers at schools affiliated with the coalition or center. Eventually, they hope to create regional centers around the country that could provide technical assistance and support to local elementary schools engaged in reform.

In preparation for the April meeting, Theodore Sizer, chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a professor of education at Brown University, adapted the nine common principles embraced by coalition high schools to reflect elementary school practices and language. The principles state, for example, that students of all ages should have the opportunity to discover and construct meaning from their own experiences. In addition, coalition elementary schools would not have strict age grading, since students would be expected to advance based on their mastery of knowledge and skills.

For more information on the elementary school network, contact the Center for Collaborative Education, 1573 Madison Ave., Room 201, New York, NY 10029; (212) 348-7821.

Catholic School Enrollments Surge

For the first time in nearly 30 ears, enrollment at Roman Catholic schools nationwide has increased significantly, thanks largely to the growing popularity of their pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs.

The figures, released last spring by the National Catholic Educational Association, show that enrollment in pre-K through 12th grade programs during the 1992-93 school year stood at 2,567,630—16,767 students more than the previous year.

That 0.7 percent jump is the largest single-year rise in enrollment nationally since 1964, according to Robert Kealey, executive director of the NCEA’s elementary schools department. It contrasts, he notes, with small losses in each of the past five years of perhaps 10,000 students a year. “What we have seen this year is a significant turnaround,” he says.

Association officials suggest a number of reasons for the increase, including stepped-up marketing efforts and demographic trends favoring elementary school programs.

Total enrollment in Catholic schools has remained relatively stable at around 2.6 million since the 1988-89 school year, following a steady decline from the 3million mark in 1982-83. The growth this year reflects gains in grades pre-kindergarten through 8; overall enrollment in those grades jumped by 19,484 students—or nearly 1 percent. High school enrollment, on the other hand, actually slipped to 583,905 students, 2,717 fewer than last year.

By grade level, the largest gains by far came in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs. Pre-K programs, which Catholic schools have been adding in recent years, enrolled 122,788 students this year—a jump of 13.8 percent, or 14,849 students, from the 1991-92 school year. In 1982-83, by contrast, Catholic school pre-kindergarten programs enrolled just 31,381 students nationwide.

The overall surge in enrollments came despite an ongoing decline in the number of Catholic schools. This past school year, for example, Catholic elementary schools numbered 7,174, 65 fewer than a year earlier, while secondary schools totaled 1,246, or 20 fewer than the previous year.

Sexual Harassment Among Students At `Epidemic’ Level

Four out of five students in grades 8 through 11—85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys—say they have been sexually harassed at school, according to the first nationally representative survey on the issue.

Of the girls polled, nearly one in three—compared with roughly one in five boys—said they are “often” sexually harassed, defined for purposes of the study as “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which interferes with your life.” Two-thirds of all boys polled and slightly more than half of all girls admit that they have harassed someone at school.

The survey, which was conducted earlier this year by Louis Harris & Associates for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, asked students if they had experienced any of 14 types of behavior, ranging from being leered at or joked about to being forced to do something sexual.

The survey found that the psychological effects of harassment are most profound among girls. For example, 70 percent of girls, but only 24 percent of boys, said the experience made them very or somewhat upset. Girls who have been harassed also appear to suffer educationally in disproportionate numbers; one-third said the experience made them want to miss school, compared with only 12 percent of boys.

Although girls report that their tormentors typically are male classmates, one-fourth said they had been harassed by a teacher or another school employee. African-American girls are more likely than whites and Hispanics to be bothered by a school worker.

Anne Bryant, the foundation’s executive director, says the survey is important because it documents the “epidemic proportion” of sexual harassment in schools. “When you see a figure like 81 percent,” she says, “you have to sit up and take notice.”

Court Favors Regular Classroom For Disabled Boy

In a case that has attracted national attention, a federal appeals court has ruled that a New Jersey school district must teach a severely disabled boy in a regular classroom.

The May 28 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit permits Rafael Oberti, an 8year-old with Down syndrome, to attend school in a class with nondisabled students. School officials in Rafael’s hometown of Clementon, N.J., had sought to keep him out of the regular classroom because they said his behavior would disrupt learning for the other children in his class.

Advocates for the “full inclusion” of disabled children in regular classrooms say the unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel sends “a clear signal” to districts confused over where to serve their disabled students. Districts “won’t get into these kinds of situations anymore,” says Frank Laski, a lawyer for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which represented Rafael’s parents.

The case became nationally prominent last year after a federal district court ruled in favor of the family. “Inclusion,” the court said, “is a right, not a privilege for the select few.”

In less sweeping language, the appeals court justices said they basically agreed with the lower court. The judges concluded that school officials had not made a “reasonable effort” to accommodate the child in a regular classroom and that the boy would benefit from being with nondisabled peers. Moreover, they said, the district failed to prove Rafael’s behavior problems would continue to occur if he were in a regular classroom with the proper supports and services.

School officials testified that, as a student in a regular kindergarten class, the boy had frequent temper tantrums and touched, hit, and spit at other children and teachers. “If the court thinks this child should be mainstreamed,” a district lawyer says, “there’s probably not a child in the country that shouldn’t be mainstreamed.”

Special Education Group Weighs In On Full Inclusion

After nearly three years of rancorous debate, the Council for Exceptional Children, the largest international organization of special educators, has weighed in on the movement to place disabled students in classrooms with their nonhandicapped peers.

In a statement approved at its annual meeting in April, the group says “full inclusion” is part of a continuum of special education services to which all disabled children are entitled. Such services and placements range from teaching in separate schools to extra support in a regular classroom. But the statement goes further by adding that inclusion is “a meaningful goal to be pursued by schools and communities.”

“Children and youth with disabilities should be served whenever possible in general-education classrooms in our schools and communities,” the document states.

The issue of whether to fully include disabled children in regular schools has divided the special education community for years. Although federal special education law strongly encourages teaching children in such settings, disabled children are more commonly pulled out of classrooms and given special help in separate rooms.

Advocates of full inclusion maintain that these children have a right to be in regular classrooms throughout the school day. Rather than pull disabled children out, they say, schools should bring the needed services and resources to the children, and special educators and classroom teachers should work together in teaching all students.

Many special educators are concerned, however, that inclusion could lead to a reduction of services for the children who need help the most. They point out that the regular classroom may not be the best setting for every child. Violent or emotionally disordered children, for example, may pose a threat to themselves and their classmates. And deaf children, unable to communicate with classmates and teachers who do not know sign language, may feel more isolated than they might in separate schools.

The new CEC statement attempts to place the inclusion issue and the role of special educators in the larger context of the school reform movement by describing what “inclusive schools” should look like. It notes, for example, that such schools should be places in which the building administrator and staff members would be responsible for all of the students in the school—not just those who are nondisabled. Rules and regulations should be redefined, and staff members should have a greater say in school decisions. All teachers should be provided with the training needed to work in these new settings. And, the statement maintains, these reconfigured general education classrooms should be strengthened by “an infusion of specially trained personnel and other appropriate supportive practices.”

One of the greatest concerns of special educators is that school administrators and policymakers may seize on inclusion as a way to stretch scarce education dollars. Thus, students could be “dumped” back into regular classrooms with little or no support. “A lot of school districts seem to be taking this as an opportunity to cut the budget,” says Kerry Parks, a special educator in Round Rock, Texas. “What it’s amounting to for those districts is a reduction or limitation to services for kids, and they’re putting the `inclusion’ label on it, and it flies.”

Teachers Voice Their Priorities

Although there is widespread support among teachers for President Clinton’s education proposals, a large majority believe that the most important thing the federal government can do to improve schools is encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s education.

About 80 percent of 1,000 public school teachers surveyed in January and February by polling firm Louis Harris & Associates said promoting parental involvement should be the first or second priority on the national education agenda. The survey, which was sponsored by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., sought teachers’ reactions to the education proposals put forward by the president during the 1992 campaign. Specifically, they were asked to identify the most important proposals, considering the budget constraints faced by all levels of government.

Most teachers ranked strengthening parental involvement ahead of expanding early childhood education programs, establishing tough national standards for students, or improving safety in and around schools. Upgrading early childhood programs such as Head Start was most often listed as the second highest priority.

Almost 70 percent of the teachers said the government should focus on providing programs that help disadvantaged parents participate in their children’s learning; approximately 60 percent said fully funding Head Start would be a good place to start.

The findings, the report says, “demonstrated the depth of concern teachers have about such things as the lack of support or help from parents, their unsatisfactory experiences working with parents, and the lack of preparedness of children to learn.”

Among the survey’s other findings:

•Teachers were divided over whether they should periodically be required to pass a basic-competency test in order to keep their jobs. Nearly equal numbers supported and opposed the idea.

•About 80 percent voiced support for requiring 8th graders to pass an exam before going on to high school.

•Two-thirds said a system of differentiated pay should be established to attract and retain teachers in urban and rural areas.

•Close to half of the teachers strongly supported increasing federal Chapter 1 fundi-ng for low income students. More than 90 percent said schools should have flexibility in deciding how to spend Chapter 1 funds.

To get a free copy of the survey, write to MetLife, The American Teacher Survey, 1 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010.

New Hopes For Bush-Initiated Reform Project

It is no secret within education policy circles that the New American School Development Corp.—the organization launched by business leaders at the request of the Bush administration to help create a new generation of schools—has come nowhere close to meeting its fund-raising goal of $200 million.

Last spring, the corporation made a move it hopes will change all that: It elected David Kearns, former Deputy Secretary of Education under President Bush, to be its president and chairman of the board. The appointment came several weeks after a ringing endorsement by President Clinton of the corporation’s efforts. Many observers believe that Kearns, the widely respected former chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox, will now be able to put NASDC’s foundering fund-raising effort back on its feet.

In June, the NASDC board voted to continue funding nine of the 11 design teams that have spent the past year developing blueprints for “break the mold” schools. Kearns acknowledged at that time that NASDC did “not quite” have in hand all the money needed to fund the nine teams during the coming year.

In fact, by late spring, the corporation had raised only about $50 million of its $200 million goal, a goal Kearns has since cut by half. He said the lowered estimate was based primarily on the design team’s detailed blueprints for what they need to carry out their ideas in real schools and communities during the second phase of the project.

The corporation is negotiating one-year contracts with the nine design teams for phase two, based on the understanding that it will sign additional, one-year contracts once more money is raised. “We’ve been very open with the design teams that we haven’t raised the funds on the schedule that we had hoped for,” Kearns said. But he declined to say how much money the design teams have been promised for either this year or next.

He added that the board has not yet decided how to proceed with phase three of the operation, when successful designs are supposed to be replicated in schools nationwide. “Maybe NASDC, by phase three, doesn’t have a role,” he said, “and what we should really do is aid the teams in getting funding directly [from other sources].”

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Current Events