Court Okays Private School for Teachers' Children

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has ruled that teachers in the Crenshaw, Ala., school district may send their children to a private school, despite a school-district policy prohibiting it.

Upholding a lower-court decision, the appeals court decided last month in Stough and Sasser v. Crenshaw Board of Education that two teachers, Janice Stough and Sheila Sasser, have the right to send their children to the Crenshaw Christian Academy. The court declined, however, to rule on the constitutionality of the school board's policy.

The two teachers sued the school board in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, Ala., after they were told that school-board policy forbade them to' send their children to the private school. In May 1983, the district court ruled that the teachers' right to educate their children as they chose overrode school policy. That position was upheld last month by the appeals court.

"We find that, contrary to the board's arguments, the personal3preferences and beliefs of the board members and some teachers are not sufficient justification for denying the plaintiffs the right to choose and direct their children's education," Senior Circuit Judge Lewis Morgan wrote in the appellate opinion.

Avoid Integration

Alton Turner, the lawyer for the school board, said school officials argued that the teachers wanted to send their children to a private school to avoid integration. The schools where the two teachers work, Brantley High School and Highland Home High School, are about 30-percent black, he said, and the Crenshaw Christian Academy is virtually all white.

Lawyers for Ms. Stough and Ms. Sasser argued, however, that the teachers wanted to send their children to the private school primarily for religious reasons.

Constitutional Rights

"There are two constitutional rights involved here," Mr. Turner said. "Every American citizen has the right to send his children to the school of his choice. Teachers have the same right. By the same token, the board has the constitutional right to conduct its affairs in the best interest of the schools. It's a balancing process. Both courts decided on the evidence that the board did not offer enough proof to convince the court it would be to the detriment of the school system for the teachers to send their children to a private school."

Mr. Turner said the board argued that allowing the teachers to send their children to a private school would hinder the relationships between the teachers and their employers, their colleagues, and their students.

"We took the position that these teachers' sending their children to a private school is a reflection on them and the public-school system," Mr. Turner said. "The children's education would be adversely affected, particularly black children's, because their teachers didn't feel the education they were getting was good enough."

Relationships 'Unimpaired'

However, the appellate court found that "there is no evidence ... that teacher relationships were critically impaired or materially and substantially [interfered] with the efficient operation of the school system. Likewise, there was little evidence that patronage of private schools significantly impaired the ability of the plaintiffs to work for the board in operating a public school."

Ronald Wise, a lawyer for Ms. Stough, said that in 1975 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a similar policy in a Mississippi district. However, Mr. Wise said, in that case, Cook v. Hudson, the court upheld the policy because it found that the teachers had sent their children to private schools specifically to avoid integration. He said that at that time, the Mississippi schools were involved in court-ordered desegregation.

"In the present case," the appeals court found, "the trial court did not find that segregation and discrimination were the motivating factors behind the plaintiffs' desire to enroll their children in the private school."

Mr. Turner said the school board does not intend to appeal the case.

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