Equity and Fort Worth’s Computers: Do They Work for Chapter 1?

By William Snider — April 02, 1986 12 min read

Fort Worth

Anne Amsden, the principal of St. Mary’s School, a Catholic elementary school here, “enthusiastically” endorses the new computer system that provides remedial instruction to her educationally disadvantaged students.

The Fort Worth public-school district’s decision last October to use computer-based instruction in its federal Chapter 1 program for religious-school students has attracted the attention of hundreds of educators and government officials.

All are seeking a satisfactory way to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on the use of public funds to pay Chapter 1 teachers in religious schools. That decision has resulted in a loss of services for at least 50,000 private-school students nationwide.

Ms. Amsden and other officials of both public and private schools here tell visitors they think they have stumbled across the perfect solution. And they say they are still tallying the benefits of their hasty decision last October to use computers to deliver remedial programs to the city’s six Catholic elementary schools.

But one benefit—that computers cost far less per pupil than do certified teachers—has already run afoul of a provision in the Chapter 1 legislation that mandates that per-pupil expenditures for the services provided to students in public and private schools be roughly equal.

The new equity issue has just begun to emerge, as cities like Fort Worth launch experiments with computer-based Chapter 1 instruction. Somewhat surprisingly, Ms. Amsden and other Catholic-school educators are among the most supportive of the new computer option, while the U.S. Education Department and others say questions of equity and also effectiveness have yet to be answered.

Federal Perspective

The Chapter 1 law requires that private-school students be provided access to services that are “equitable” with those offered in the public schools.

In Fort Worth, where many public-school children also receive their remedial instruction via computer, state and local education officials consider that the equitability requirement has been met.

But determining equity is much more difficult when religious- and public-school students are receiving their Chapter 1 instruction via significantly different delivery systems. And Education Department officials question whether the cost effectiveness of a computer-based program would violate the requirement of financial equity.

In a recent letter responding to inquiries from nonpublic-school officials, Mary Jean LeTendre, federal director of compensatory-education programs, wrote: “If [computer-aided instruction] does not provide this equity, the local education agency may make up the difference by providing additional services, such as tutorial centers or summer school.”

In an interview last week, Ms. LeTendre said that in order to meet the equitability provision, programs should offer comparable levels of instruction, should cost roughly the same per pupil, and should take into account the level of participation of the private schools.

Richard E. Duffy, director of federal education programs for the U.S. Catholic Conference, agrees that each of those guidelines should be met in programs proposed by public-school districts.

If a computer-based system can be largely paid for in the first year, he said, “how do you provide equity in the future?” The amount of money spent, he said, is an important indicator of equity because it is easily measured.

‘Instructional Equity’

But Frank Fanning, director of federal programs in Fort Worth, argues that the insistence on financial equity “could turn into inequity in the future.”

The system’s cost-effectiveness, he said, may prove to be its strongest characteristic in the long run, because computer-based instruction may be best able to survive reductions in the federal budget for Chapter 1 programs.

Most of the Fort Worth program’s costs this year occur from leasing the hardware for the system, he said. Still, he estimates that the annual cost of delivering services to Catholic children here has fallen by about $110 per pupil compared with last year, when public-school teachers taught the courses.

Moreover, a similar program in the public schools for which the equipment was purchased several years ago costs almost $150 less per student to deliver than the religious-school program, he noted.

About 19 percent of the public-school Chapter 1 students in Fort Worth are in the C.A.I. program.

Rather than focus on financial equity, Mr. Fanning said, a system should be judged on whether or not it provides “instructional equity.” The computer system here tracks students’ progress on a daily basis and, according to Mr. Fanning, the 241 Catholic students in the program are demonstrating learning gains “equal to or better than” those of local public-school students.

But Mr. Fanning also said that if it becomes necessary, he can spend additional money on the program to make it “equitable.” The savings I could be used to provide diagnosticians, counselors, or supplemental classroom materials, he suggested, adding: “If it comes down to an arbitrary decision, I’ll find something.”

Teacher Replacement?

Father Steve O’Brien of the National Catholic Educational Association said an over-reliance on financial measures of equity “seems somewhat nitpicking.”

“We get lost in this whole thing and forget who we’re trying to help,” he said.

Catholic-school administrators should be most concerned, according to Father O’Brien and other education officials, about whether disadvantaged children can learn as much by using a computer as they do when taught by a human teacher.

“I would question whether a dumb terminal with no interaction could be equal to a reading specialist,” said Ms. LeTendre, noting that she had been a Chapter 1 instructor.

Mr. Duffy also said he had some “reservations” about the educational value of computers. “Is that what this type of youngster needs, or is it just a toy?” he asked.

Pressing Need

Most education officials agree that there is a pressing need to find equitable delivery systems for Chapter 1 services in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling last July in Aguilar v. Felton.

In that decision, the Justices barred public-school districts from sending teachers into religious schools to provide Chapter 1 services, the delivery method that had been used to serve over 85 percent of the private-school students in the program.

Many parents of Chapter 1 students attending religious schools have objected strongly to alternative programs that require their children to travel to a site often far removed from their school’s campus. Busing such pupils to a neutral Chapter 1 site appears to have been the solution chosen by the majority of school districts this year.

Another common solution, the use of mobile vans parked near a private school as portable classrooms, has been criticized because the cost of the vehicles must be subtracted from the total program budget for both public- and private-school students.

The lack of a satisfactory delivery method has had a major impact on the number of eligible students who actually receive services this year. According to an Education Department survey of 45 states completed in late 1985, the number of religious-school students receiving Chapter 1 aid has fallen by nearly one-third since last year.

Significantly, one-third of those being served are receiving federally financed remedial assistance in districts where courts have delayed implementation of the Felton decision, according to Ms. LeTendre.

According to the department survey, 173,000 religious-school students received Chapter 1 aid last year; the total this year was estimated at 123,000. Of that group, the survey found, 40,000 are still receiving the aid on school premises, the method that the Justices invalidated.

Some school officials suggest, however, that the department figures—based on statistics provided by state education agencies—overestimate the number of students being served. Thomas P. Rosica, the director of federal programs in Philadelphia, said in a recent interview that the participation of religious-school students has fallen by closer to two-thirds this year.

Mr. Duffy of the Catholic Conference takes the middle ground, estimating that half as many students are being served as last year—that nearly 90,000 private-school students have lost their remedial instruction as a result of the Felton decision.

On-Site Solution

Advocates of a technology-based delivery system for Chapter 1 say that it is the only solution that allows students to remain at their own schools and at the same time complies fully with the Felton ruling.

“I would not challenge that kind of arrangement, so long as it was not forced upon public-school authorities,” said Lee Boothby, general counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the group that initiated the Felton suit.

The key point, he said, is that there must be safeguards to ensure that equipment provided to private schools with federal money cannot be diverted for religious instruction.

The computer used in the Fbrt Worth system, which is leased from the Palo Alto-based Computer Curriculum Corporation, is housed and controlled at the company’s regional office several miles from the city.

Each school’s computer lab contains “dumb” terminals that have access only to authorized software programs. The terminals are linked to a printer for worksheets and progress reports, and most have voice synthesizers to give oral guidance to younger students.

“A computer with a dumb terminal is probably an arrangement that would be found acceptable under the court’s decision,” said Mr. Boothby.

To ensure maximum compliance, he said, the program should be designed so that all staff meetings occur off the premises of the religious schools, and any additional instructional activities offered to achieve equity should not be made exclusive to the private-school students.

Offering the option of computers “should be a judgment made by public-school authorities,” Mr. Boothby argued. “One problem we’re seeing today is that [U.S. Secretary of Education William J.] Bennett is saying that parochial-school officials have a right to determine what’s going to happen.”

The only Chapter 1 choice superior to computers, according to Mr. Boothby, is one where religious-school children “can walk across the street or down the block to a neutral site.”

‘Better Than Busing’

Most education officials say that it is too early to predict whether computer-aided instruction will be proven effective enough to become a commonly used method of delivering Chapter 1 services.

“I think in some cases people will decide that while it might not be as good as having a teacher in the classroom, it’s better than busing,” said Father O’Brien of the N.C.E.A. “We do not think busing is equitable.”

Students who are bused, he said, are put in a “strange environment” and “singled out among strangers as kids who need special help.”

Others predict that if the religious schools’ computer-based instruction proves effective, it might stimulate a re-evaluation of the much larger public-school Chapter 1 programs as well as provide financially strapped private schools with an alternative means of instruction in an era of teacher shortages.

A Model Effort

Officials in Fort Worth believe their experiences may play a valuable part in the decisions of other districts to consider a technology-based delivery system for Chapter 1.

Their program was the first to be approved by the Texas Department of Education for the current year, according to James Wilson, state director of compensatory education.

It was judged equitable under federal guidelines, he said, because both public- and private-school officials found the technique “mutually agreeable.”

It was considered so satisfactory, he said, that he urged that Fort Worth’s plan be nominated as a model for Secretary Bennett’s Initiative To Improve the Education of Disadvantaged Children, even though standardized-test scores are not yet available to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.

The results of the nationwide search for model Chapter 1 programs will be released in mid-April at the annual conference of the International Reading Association in Philadelphia, according to Ms. LeTendre. She would not comment on the status of Fort Worth’s nomination.

Several other districts in the state are considering moving to a solution similar to Fort Worth’s. Six Catholic schools in El Paso and four in Corpus Christi have recently been provided with a similar program from their respective public-school districts

Mr. Wilson said the appeal of computer-based instruction “depends a lot on the size of the district, the l number of kids to be served.” Smaller districts, he said, “seem to show more preference for neutral sites,” while larger districts frequently opt for an assortment of solutions.

Ms. Amsden, who works closely with the library aide supervising the program at her school and has tested some of her own students, believes the computer lab has already proven to be a “powerful” learning tool.

“Teachers were not able to address as many facets of a child’s education as this lab,” she said.

She said the system gives her and her teachers the ability to track students’ progress toward achieving specific learning gains and actually provides much more interaction for each student than is possible when a single teacher works with a group.

In addition, she said, “there is no need to pull students out of their regular classes, because they do their work during a scheduled library period” for the entire grade.

This facet, she explained, also reduces the stigma typically attached to special-needs children by peers.

Edward Dougherty, superintendent of schools for the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese, said he had been skeptical about moving to a relatively untried delivery system. But “after considering the other alternatives,” he said, “this is the most equitable solution we can imagine.”

He said he had not experienced much difficulty finding parent-volunteers to staff computer labs where teachers and aides were not available, and credits Computer Curriculum Corporation with smoothing the way for the implementation of the system by providing training and ongoing consultations.

Officials here expect the effectiveness of their computer program to be confirmed after the students take the Iowa ‘That of Basic Skills, scheduled to be administered in April.

“I’ll be very surprised” if the tests don’t show the students have “made substantial gains,” said Ms. Amsden.

A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 1986 edition of Education Week


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