U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Public, Private School Questions

By Charlie Euchner — March 07, 1984 6 min read

A coalition of black families, which claims the federal government’s practice of granting tax exemptions to private schools has impaired desegregation efforts in the families’ districts, challenged the exemptions before the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

The oral arguments represented one of two Court developments with wide-ranging implications for government policies toward private schools.

The Court also agreed to hear a challenge to a Michigan school district’s policy that allows public-school instructors to teach pupils in private schools.

In the case involving tax exemptions, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the plaintiffs did not have the “standing,” or direct stake in the case, that is necessary under the U.S. Constitution to bring suit. The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that decision.

The case, Regan v. Wright and Allen v. Wright (Case Nos. 81-970 and 81-757), originally involved only the coalition of families and the Internal Revenue Service.

The case was later joined by W. Wayne Allen, the leader of the Briarcrest School System in Memphis, which was listed in the suit as an example of a private school that drew white students from the public-school system.

The parents’ suit lists a total of 19 private schools that they say were created at the time of desegregation and draw white students away from the public schools.

Robert Kapp, the lawyer for the coalition of 25 parents of black children in seven states, argued that the irs did not adequately consider the extent to which the private schools encourage “white flight” when it granted tax-exempt status to segregated private schools.

Mr. Kapp said the grievances of his clients were “the same as the injuries in Brown [v. Board of Education].” In both cases, he said, “the government’s participation in the denial of a desegregated school system” violated the students’ right to equal constitutional protection.

But Solicitor General Rex E. Lee, who argued the case for the irs, contended that the coalition did not demonstrate that it had “standing’’ and should have sued a school if it wished to challenge the way desegregation was being carried out.

Did Not Prove Standing

Noting that none of the plaintiffs had been denied admission to the private schools because of discriminatory policies, Mr. Lee said: “This case turns on the fact that these respondents don’t have a concrete injury to themselves.”

Mr. Lee said the relief sought by the plaintiffs--a change in the irs enforcement of tax-exemption policies--would not directly address their desegregation complaint. That, he said, demonstrated that the plaintiffs did not prove adequate standing.

Much of the lawyers’ arguments concerned the extent to which the judiciary should oversee the everyday activities of government agencies such as the irs Mr. Lee argued that the coalition was seeking to “take away [responsibility for developing public policy] from the three branches of government.”

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger asked Mr. Kapp whether Wright differed at all from an earlier case in which the Court warned that judicial participation “would turn the operations of the government into a town meeting.”

Mr. Kapp answered: “It is possible for the Court to do something about this without turning the government upside down. There are black students whose right to a desegregated education is being interfered with. They have standing.”

Justice Harry A. Blackmun said the plaintiffs’ claim that they are victims of a segregated system was “not consistent” with the plaintiffs’ acknowledgement that the each district in the case is operating some kind of desegregation plan.

Shared-Time Challenge

In another action that concerns the relationships between government and private schools, the Court announced that it would consider a case involving the so-called “shared-time” program in Grand Rapids, Mich. The case, Grand Rapids v. Ball (No. 83-990), was brought by the State of Michigan on behalf of the Grand Rapids public schools.

The constitutionality of the shared-time program--under which public-school teachers teach some courses in private-school buildings--was challenged by a group of Grand Rapids taxpayers, who charge that the program violates the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Two lower federal courts have ruled in favor of the taxpayers.

Shared-time programs involved 10,000 private-school students in the state before a federal district judge ruled against the practice in 1982, said a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. Many public-school officials say they favor the programs because they improve relations between private and public schools.

The private-school students who take part in the program are officially listed as part-time public-school students. Lessons are held in classrooms with no religious symbols, and officials from both the public and private schools say the classes do not replace courses that the private schools would be required to offer.

Other Education Cases

In other action last week, the Court also heard arguments in Paris Union Board of Education v. Vail (No. 83-87), a suit challenging an Illinois school district’s dismissal, without an explanation, of a nontenured teacher to whom it promised employment for a longer period. The teacher prevailed in two lower federal courts.

The case stems from the school board’s decision not to renew the one-year contract of Jesse Vail, a teacher who took a job in the district with the understanding that he would be employed for at least two years.

Mr. Vail says the informal agreement--which the district acknowledges it made--amounted to a binding contract.

Mr. Vail also says he was entitled to an explanation and hearing at the time of the dismissal.

The district argues that Illinois tenure statutes, which allow schools to dismiss probationary teachers without explanation, rendered the agreement unenforceable. The district contends that the dispute is a state rather than a federal issue.

Thomas Miller, the district’s lawyer, said the case “cries out for a state-court determination.” A Supreme Court ruling in the teacher’s favor, he said, would “open the floodgates” for federal judicial involvement in personnel policies that should be determined by state governments.

Noting the decisions by the two lower federal courts, Justice William H. Rehnquist told Mr. Miller: “You have a fairly tough row to hoe here.”

Special-Education Case

The Court was also asked last week to hear a New York school board’s challenge to a state requirement that handicapped students take competency examinations before they can be awarded a high-school diploma.

In a ruling issued last year in the case, Northport-East Northport v. Ambach (No. 1189), the state’s highest court ruled that such a requirement was permissible.

The state argues that the requirement is necessary to ensure the validity of a high-school diploma.

The diploma stands as a school’s certification that a young person has the educational background necessary to participate ably in a democratic society, the state contends.

The state’s requirement unfairly stigmatized students who did not earn high-school degrees and therefore violated the students’ “liberty right” under the 14th Amendment, according to the lawyers for the students and the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District.

The lawyers also said the state education department did not notify the districts of the requirement until two months before the examination date and that the schools had insufficient time to prepare the handicapped students for the tests.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 1984 edition of Education Week as U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Public, Private School Questions