Group, Charging E.D. Flouts Felton, To Sue Bennett, Protest Payment Plan

By James Hertling — September 04, 1985 3 min read

An advocacy group last week announced plans to sue Secretary of Education William J. Bennett for “willfully” failing to implement the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision barring public- school personnel from teaching Chapter 1 students in religious schools.

And in a related development, Commissioner of Education Ralph D. Turlington of Florida announced last week that he would permit school districts to continue to send Chapter 1 remedial-education teachers into religious schools, despite federal guidelines warning against the practice.

Aims To Block Aid

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said its suit will seek to block use of the Education Department’s recent prescription for school districts on how to allocate the administrative costs of serving Chapter 1 religious-school students. And it will attempt to have cut off federal remedial-education aid to districts that fail to comply with the decision in Aguilar v. Felton.

Mr. Bennett had no comment on the suit, a department spokesman said.

Mr. Bennett has said that he would support local officials who seek to delay implementation of Felton.

Footdragging Charged

Lee Boothby, counsel for Americans United, charged in a press briefing last week that Mr. Bennett was actually blocking state officials in Missouri from obeying the Court’s mandate.

Prior to the decision, the department had served Missouri’s private-school Chapter-1 students through a contractor, since the state constitution bars the state from administering the program in the private schools. But despite state officials’ reported claims that they are now willing and able to provide Chapter 1 services to religious-school students at public sites, the department has not ended its “by-pass” and has sought instead a one-year delay in implementing Felton.

Mr. Boothby said Americans United will seek injunctive relief and financial damages from Mr. Bennett under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Secretary, the group claims, has “willfully fail[ed] to implement the rulings of the Supreme Court.” The suit, to be filed this week in federal district court in Missouri, will not specify an amount for desired damages, said Mr. Boothby.

Americans United was a party to Grand Rapids v. Ball, a case related to Felton and handed down the same day.

Payment Plan Questioned

The Felton decision has forced districts to devise alternative ways of providing Congressionally mandated “equitable” services to religious school students, and officials say that these methods--which could entail busing students to other sites, hiring new personnel, or buying and servicing mobile trailers--will cost significantly more than teaching the students in their own classrooms.

In guidelines issued last month, the Education Department ordered that the new administrative expenses come “off the top” of a district’s Chapter 1 allocation rather than be included in the per-pupil cost for the religious-school students, thus reducing the amount available to public-school students.

The payment formula will be challenged on the grounds that it entangles church and state and violates the public-school students’ 14th Amendment due-process rights, said Mr. Boothby.

Delay in Florida

Florida’s state chief, Mr. Turlington, announced at a press conference that “in order to provide for appropriate planning and Ii commonsense transition in implementing the Court’s decision, the [state] Department of Education will support districts which elect to continue to serve children on the premises of religiously affiliated schools for the 1985-86 school year.”

Mr. Turlington said he would use whatever influence he could to ensure that school districts that serve students in religious schools are not unfairly penalized in a federal audit, according to Tim Callahan, an aide to Mr. Turlington.

The state has relatively few Chapter 1 students in religious schools; of 148,000 students receiving the remedial aid, about 3,200 in 24 districts attend religiously affiliated schools, said Mr. Callahan.

An Education Department spokesman said the department had no official reaction to Mr. Turlington’s move.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1985 edition of Education Week as Group, Charging E.D. Flouts Felton, To Sue Bennett, Protest Payment Plan