Grand Rapids May Appeal Court's Rejection of 'Shared-Time' Plan

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The board of education in Grand Rapids, Mich., was scheduled to decide this week whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a federal-court ban of its "shared-time" program, in which public schools offered instructional programs to private-school students.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in a 2-to-1 vote, this month refused to reverse a 1982 district-court decision that found the program involving 41 private schools to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In a statement released last week, Acting Superintendent Elmer H. Vruggink said he was "disappointed" with the circuit court's decision.

But he also said he was "encouraged by the strong dissenting opinion" of Judge Robert Krupansky.

In rejecting the majority's opinion that the program violated the First Amendment, Judge Krupansky said the program's history of smooth administration belied the majority's contention that the program in-volved "excessive administrative entanglement" of church and state.

Under the shared-time arrangement, halted by U.S. District Judge Richard A. Enseln in August 1982, the public-school system leased space in private schools for a nominal fee and provided teachers for remedial and "enrichment" courses. (See Education Week, August 25, 1982.) Sanctioned by the state department of public instruction and funded by state and local money, the program involved 10,000 private-school students.

Local school officials said the program actually resulted in a net gain in state funding for the district, despite the fact that public-school teachers were used in private schools. The district spent only about half of the $6 million it received in state aid for the shared-time classes, the officials said; the rest of the money was put into the district's general fund.

The district still runs two programs originally challenged in the suit; these provide bus service for public- and private-school students to educational programs in public schools and other public places. Both feder-al courts have objected only to the idea of offering public-school programs in private-school buildings.

Linda C. Johnson, president of the school board, said the shared-time classes were an expression of the district's concern for "all segments of the Grand Rapids community." Private-school families, she said, "should be able to take advantage of their tax dollars."

Few other states have shared-time programs, Michigan officials say, but many districts in that state have such programs. Michigan state courts have upheld the practice, with the stipulations that the programs be controlled by the public-school district, secular in content, and not established to replace private-school programs.

In the decision for the majority, Judge George Edwards said the program "involved excessive administrative entanglement between government and religion" and therefore failed part of the three-part test usually used to determine whether programs violate the First Amendment.

According to the other two parts of the test, laws must not have a religious purpose or have the principal or primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. Judge Edwards held that the law did not have a religious purpose and withheld judgment' about whether it advanced or inhibited religion.

Judge Edwards stressed that the schools in which the programs were offered "are religious institutions created, controlled, and operated with the advancement of their various religious faiths as a primary purpose."

To illustrate his contention that the shared-time program unconstitutionally linked the private schools to the public schools, Judge Edwards noted that the pri-vate schools used the public-school teachers for about 10 percent of their classes--a substantial part of their overall program.

He also indicated that, because a number of teachers drawing salaries from the public system "were previously employed [only] in the parochial school[s] concerned," they should be considered to be in the service of the private schools.

Finally, the judge said that the public-school money used in the program was a "direct benefit to all teachers [in both public and private schools] ... and the religious mission of the [private] schools concerned."

William Foster, the administrative assistant to Mr. Vruggink, said a prime motive of the district in running the program was to receive additional state support. "Getting extra money for education is something everyone is striving for," he said.

Even with the reduced version of the program, he said, the district receives about $3 million in extra state funding--and only slightly more than half of that is required to meet the program's expenses.

Michigan's department of education is studying possible changes in formulas for the allocation of state aid so that the funding levels and costs of the programs are more closely matched, an official for the department said. Differences between funding and program costs, the official said, often occur in programs that involve "people counting."

Mr. Foster said the district also started the program to improve political support among voters for school-financing packages. Since the program was ruled unconstitutional in district court, he said, private-school parents have displayed less enthusiasm for the millage requests.

Vol. 03, Issue 05

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