Public-School Advocates Readying Opposition

By Cindy Currence — September 19, 1984 8 min read
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Coming amid a Presidential campaign already flavored by church-state issues, the statement last week by Pope John Paul II calling for government aid to religious schools is likely to heighten the activity of a growing number of public-school officials and advocates who oppose public support for private educational institutions.

“The Pope’s statement does not help our efforts by any stretch of the imagination,” said Arnold F. Fege, director of governmental relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, which opposes public aid to private education.

“We’re going to have to work very hard now to educate our membership and point out that we need to focus on public education,” he said.

According to Mr. Fege, the battleground for those fighting public aid to private schools has shifted in the past year from the federal to the state level, and state affiliates of the pta and other education groups now are concentrating their efforts on combating the private-aid proposals in state legislatures.

“We are not opposed to private schools,” Mr. Fege added, “but we are working to assure that the limited resources go to public education and that public monies go where they belong.”

State Coalitions

In states where lawmakers are expected to consider tuition-tax-deduction plans, voucher proposals, and other forms of aid to private schools in upcoming sessions, other formal and informal coalitions of public-education advocacy groups are developing strategies to defeat them.

Even before the Pope’s remarks last week, leaders of education groups said they expected such proposals to grow in number despite past defeats. Voucher proposals and tuition-tax-deduction legislation or bills combining tuition tax credits and tax deductions currently are under consideration in at least 13 state legislatures, according to a July survey by the pta

“We’re saying that this has got to stop--that it is bad financial and education policy,” Mr. Fege said.

Presidential Role Cited

Officials at the U.S. Education Department attribute much of the increasing public acceptance of private-aid proposals to the leadership of President Reagan and to the Administration’s support of tuition tax credits, compensatory-education vouchers, the recently adopted bill guaranteeing religious groups “equal access” to school facilities, and other such measures, said Charles J. O’Malley, executive assistant to the secretary of education for private education.

In addition, since 1981, states have been required to assure equitable participation of private schools in the federal Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 programs under Administration-backed language in the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act.

Tuition-tax-deduction plans were given a boost when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Minnesota law allowing parents to deduct educational expenses, including tuition at private schools, on their state income tax.

Impact on Public Schools

In addition to being concerned about the issue of separation of church and state that is raised by public aid to private schools, those who are active in opposing private-aid plans say they are most troubled about the impact such plans would have on public education.

“Our main concern is that if we permit [public aid to private schools] to continue, there will be inroads made into the financing of public education,” said Louis R. Smerling, a member of the Minnesota state board of education and cochairman of Minnesota Friends of Public Education, a coalition of educators that was formed this past summer to fight a bill in the Minnesota legislature that would provide parents with education vouchers to be used at a school of their choice.

Members of the group were also concerned about an increase in the allowable tuition tax deduction that the legislature “slipped in” during its last session, Mr. Smerling said. Next April, Minnesota parents will be allowed to deduct from their state income taxes up to $1,000 a year for private-school tuition and other educational expenses; last year the limit was $750.

Mr. Smerling said the support for aid to private schools in the state is coming from many of the same people who are vocal in opposing abortion. He added that some of the tactics being used to promote aid pro-posals are similar to those used by leaders of the anti-abortion movement.

“It’s the abortion story all over again,” he said. “You put a lot of pressure on the state legislature by having the church bring a bus of people to show up at a meeting and pound the table. So now we’re going to pound the table.”

Figures prepared by the coalition indicate that the state spent more than $58 million in aid to nonpublic-school students during the 1981-83 biennium--"more than any other state in the Union,” Mr. Smerling said.

“I do want it clearly understood,” he added, “that not one of us is opposed to private schools. We need private schools. We’re just saying that the taxpayer shouldn’t have to pay for them.”

Traditional Support

In other states, rather than forming new groups to battle aid to private schools, educators are depending on existing coalitions of public-education groups.

In Iowa, for example, where the legislature is expected to consider a measure similar to Minnesota’s tuition-tax-deduction law, opponents are counting on the coalition of state education organizations that worked with national groups to oppose tuition tax credits when a plan was first presented by President Reagan in 1982.

“We had a state coalition to oppose tax credits on the national level and it will oppose them on the state level as well,” said William Sherman, a spokesman for the Iowa State Educa-tion Association.

In addition to the isea, an affiliate of the National Education Association, the coalition included Educational Administrators of Iowa, a group formed by the recent merger of the Iowa Association of Secondary School Principals and the Iowa Association of Elementary School Principals, and the state chapter of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers.

Leaders of Iowa education groups said they expected increased legislative interest in tuition tax deductions because of a letter sent this past summer by Roman Catholic bishops in Iowa to all legislators, urging them to consider a tuition-tax-deduction bill.

However, Mr. Sherman said, opponents of the measure hope that support for such legislation will be inhibited by the 10-percent cuts in the 1984-85 budget for public education that were necessary when state revenues fell short of what had been expected.

Voucher Opponents

In Colorado, a coalition of education groups that formed to combat a voucher initiative that proponents tried, and failed, to place on the ballot in November is still active because the issue is not expected to go away, said Phyllis W. Prescott, director of communications for the Colorado Association of School Executives in Denver.

“We were able to keep it off the November ballot,” she said, “but it is our opinion that they will try to introduce it in the legislature, or go after a similar plan in two years.”

The coalition, which includes the state pta, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of State School Boards,3case, and Calvin M. Frazier, the state commissioner of education, will continue to work against the voucher proposal but is also in the process of developing an education-reform plan that will be acceptable to all members of the coalition, Ms. Prescott said.

Education groups in California, where a voucher referendum also failed to win a place on the ballot this past summer, are committed to battling such proposals as well, officials said.

“We’re not going to let our guard down,” said Ned Hopkins, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association.

Public-education advocates in California have been fighting voucher proposals since 1980, and all of them have been defeated, Mr. Hopkins said.

“We like to think that we had something to do with that,” he said, adding that the cta has an ongoing system for responding to voucher proposals immediately.

“We have a very good newspaper clipping service and any time we see any reference to vouchers, we’re very ready to send off a letter to the editor pointing out what we see as the evils of vouchers,” he explained.

Old Issues Reopened

In Idaho, a church-state issue settled long ago in state courts has been resurrected.

A small, nondenominational church school in Moscow, Idaho, has decided to seek an amendment to the state’s constitution that would permit students at church schools to ride public-school buses.

“We are not asking for special services,” said Thomas R. Garfield, principal of the 130-student Logos School. “But there isn’t any reason why our students cannot ride public-school buses along their regular routes when those buses have empty seats. It’s only fair; we’re all taxpayers.”

Until the Idaho Department of Education prohibited the arrangement when it learned of it last spring, students had been taking public-school transportation to the Logos School.

The department based its decision on an Idaho Supreme Court ruling in 1971 that students who attend church-affiliated schools may not use transportation provided by tax-supported public schools. Such an arrangement, the court ruled, violates the state’s constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.

Although federal courts have found that transportation aid to private schools is permissible under the Constitution, some states have adopted more restrictive establishment clauses.

Mr. Garfield said he plans to enlist the support of church-related schools throughout the state and urge local legislators to introduce the proposed amendment to the Idaho constitution.

Education groups in Idaho have not yet developed a strategy related to Mr. Garfield’s proposal because it is so new, said Gayle Moore, a spokesman for the Idaho Education Association.

However, she said, “We believe strongly in separation of church and state and whether or not [the amendment] would violate that would be the basis of any action we take.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as Public-School Advocates Readying Opposition


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