Education Opinion

Breakdown of A Coalition

By Bruce S. Cooper & John Poster — May 21, 1986 6 min read

The 20-year-old coalition that has fashioned and supported the biggest federal aid program for schoolchildren--one that dispenses more than $3- billion a year for remedial instruction in reading and mathematics--is coming apart at the seams, and at the worst possible time.

Cooperation between public and church-related schools was strained in local districts by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year barring publicly paid remedial teachers from religious-school classrooms. And the national political consensus shared by those schools has broken down since the Reagan Administration unveiled a proposal last November to provide the aid in the form of vouchers.

The splintering comes as the Congress, mandated to cut spending, must rewrite the remedial-aid law--Chapter 1 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act--next year. The voucher bill, which will probably be the Administration’s reauthorization proposal, is strongly opposed by the National Education Association and other public-school lobbies, but has been endorsed by the U.S. Catholic Conference. It was the alliance between public-education forces and advocates for private and religious schools that led to passage of the first major federal education legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

But now the fighting between such powerful interest groups is weakening the case for federal aid to education. After all, if school groups cannot agree on the services they need, why should the Congress support such controversial programs? Supporters of the Pentagon and Social Security, in contrast, present much more united fronts in fighting for their programs.

Most significantly, cooperation between public and nonpublic schools is collapsing in many local school districts, where Chapter 1 pupils who attend parochial schools find their guaranteed remedial services seriously threatened. Last July, the Supreme Court, in Aguilar v. Felton, ruled that Chapter 1 instructional services could not be provided on the premises of parochial schools. The consequent withdrawal of or disruption in Chapter 1 aid to almost 200,000 religious-school students has undermined the basis of trust and cooperation between public-school districts, which provide the services, and parochial schools (and their students), which receive them.

Local school authorities find themselves in a real quandary. On-site programs in religiously affiliated schools are now illegal--though such arrangements were often the most convenient and effective means of teaching remedial mathematics and reading. But federal law still requires equitable services for students in public and religious schools. So, districts have tried to find “off-site” alternatives, such as busing parochial- school students to nearby (or not so nearby) public schools, or using “neutral sites” (such as storefronts), mobile vans, interactive television, or semipermanent buildings off the religious-school grounds. None of these options seems ideal. They are often expensive, disruptive, and unacceptable to parents of parochial-school students.

Predictably, since September, use of Chapter 1 services has dropped by one-third to one-half for children attending religious schools; and the problem is likely to get worse in the next school year, when districts such as New York City and Philadelphia--which were granted delays by the courts until fall 1986--must find ways of meeting the needs of their large parochial-school student groups. Religious-school parents have a perfect right to demand equal treatment. They may even take public-school authorities to court to get what they deem to be a fair shake, further straining the partnership and endangering the entire Chapter 1 enterprise.

On the national scene, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett--with the support of the Catholic Conference and other representatives of nonpublic-school groups--continues to favor vouchers as a way to solve the dilemma caused by the Felton decision. His proposal, called the equity and choice act (TEACH), is stalled on Capitol Hill. But Mr. Bennett’s vocal advocacy, the bill’s apparently straightforward logic, and the coming reauthorization of Chapter 1 promise to keep the controversial legislation on the front burner.

Under TEACH, Chapter 1 funds would go to poor families as vouchers (estimated at about $650 each) that parents could use to buy remedial services for their children at a school of their choice. This plan has obvious attractions: It gives poor families greater educational options, and it seems to overcome the constitutional issues, since families--not schools--receive the federal dollars. And importantly, the money goes equally to qualified students whether they attend private or public, sectarian or nonsectarian schools, thus overcoming the guaranteed-equity problems of the off-premises options now being used.

In Felton, Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell--the swing vote in most cases involving the separation of church and state--seemed to invite the Congress to try a Chapter 1 voucher plan. In his concurring opinion, he argued for assistance programs whereby funds would be “available equally to public and nonpublic schools without entanglement.” He seemed to suggest a voucher-like scheme when he noted that perhaps the “Congress could fashion a program of evenhanded financial assistance to both public and private schools that could be administered without government supervision in private schools, so as to prevent the diversion of aid from secular purposes.”

But even though vouchers are conceptually and constitutionally attractive, they have become the Apple of Discord, triggering powerful reactions by public-school lobbyists who proclaim them to be the death knell of public education. The reactions of the teachers’ unions have been predictably negative. Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the N.E.A., has called the TEACH bill a “cruel hoax"--legislation that would “impoverish public schools,” thus weakening ''the very institutions that have most helped the most needy.”

The policymakers’ coming options, then, are painful ones. If Chapter 1 continues as is, parochial-school students will be treated inequitably by local districts and may sue for better services under the E.C.I.A., thus disrupting the local consensus on Chapter 1. Already, participation has fizzled significantly. Next fall, when big-city schools must serve thousands more parochial-school students in off-site arrangements that are unacceptable to parochial-school leaders and parents, Chapter 1 will come under shattering attack--at precisely the time when the Congress will be in the final stages of reauthorization. If, on the other hand, Mr. Bennett and others press TEACH as a way out of the Chapter 1 dilemma, the political furies will be unleashed. The battle between educational groups will escalate.

Some may argue that federal aid to education is easily dispensed with; that Washington should stay out of schools; that local and state agencies should take up the slack. For critics of federal aid, and for those seeking to save a few billion federal dollars, the local and Congressional conflict over Chapter 1 is a double blessing. But for those committed to cooperation among local, state, and federal agencies and between public and parochial schools to help deprived children, the future of Chapter 1 is of great concern.

The miracle of 20 years of cooperation between public and nonpublic education, between Washington and local districts, is dying. The specter of local disintegration is already with us. The first salvos in a divisive war in the Congress have been fired. And while adults fight over vouchers and fine points of law, poor children who desperately need remedial help are seeing their teachers removed, resource rooms closed, and opportunities lost.

There is no easy answer. Off-site programs for parochial schools will not work in the long run. Vouchers, while attractive, are politically explosive. In the grand effort to increase military spending while maintaining current tax levels, Chapter 1 will be an easy target. Parochial and public schools, once allies in serving the poor, will have fewer resources to upgrade the education of the nation’s most deprived and least prepared children--and no one will win.

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 1986 edition of Education Week