E.D. Allots Funds For Public-Private Magnet Schools

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Students from Catholic high schools in New Orleans will attend classes at three public magnet schools this fall under what is apparently the first-ever school-desegregation plan developed as a joint venture between public and parochial schools.

The novel--and controversial--plan was made possible by a $3.4-million grant to the Orleans Parish School Board from the the U.S. Department of Education's magnet-schools assistance program.

The grant will enable Catholic-school students to attend three public magnet high schools--in most cases before or after the regular school day--for training in areas not offered in their own schools, such as Asian languages and advanced technology.

The award's announcement last month sparked criticism from several sources concerned about the as-yet-unexplored civil-rights and church-state issues raised by the new program.

Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said last week that he had asked his staff to conduct "a thorough investigation" of the program to determine if it conforms to existing laws.

Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said lawyers with his organization were also examining the program to determine whether they should challenge it in court as a violation of the First Amendment's ban on establishment of religion.

Officials of the New Orleans public schools and the Archdiocese of New Orleans said last week that program critics fail to understand the cordial and cooperative relationship between the districts.

"You can't compare us with other places where the public schools might be competing with the private schools," said James Lloyd, a compliance officer with the New Orleans public schools. "They recognize the need for us, and we recognize the need for them, and we both work for the common good of students across the city."

Despite the unique nature of the proposed program, two top officials in the U.S. Education Department who approved the district's application at various stages said last week that it was treated as a routine matter, and was not given special consideration.

Both William L. Smith, the department's acting assistant secretary for civil rights, and Alicia Coro, director of school-improvement programs and a former acting assistant secretary for civil rights, said the application had not been sent to the department's office of general counsel for evaluation.

Late last week, however, the department canceled follow-up interviews with the two officials and issued the following statement: "We appreciate your concerns and the questions you have raised with the department regarding the magnet-schools assistance program. The office of general counsel is looking into the matter."

The grant was among 53 awarded last month by the department under the magnet-schools assistance program, a competitive grant program designed to eliminate, reduce, or prevent minority group isolation in elementary and secondary schools with substantial proportions of minority students. (See list of recipients on this page.)

The grants range from $183,705 to $4 million and may be continued for a second year. Department officials said they were continuing negotiations with a 54th district whose grant had not been made final.

This year's grant process was the first conducted since the magnet-school program was reauthorized last year at a higher funding level under the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Act of 1988.

For the first time, grant applicants could receive special consideration if their plans included collaborative efforts with colleges and universities, state education agencies, community-based organizations, or other private organizations.

Department officials would not say last week whether its evaluators ranked the application from New Orleans higher because of its collaborative component.

The grant to New Orleans will4pay for the creation of five magnet programs within two elementary schools and three high schools, program officials said.

Admission to the programs will be open to all students in New Orleans's public and parochial schools, they said, and will be governed by scores on the California Achievement Tests.

The plan sets enrollment goals of 50 percent white and 50 percent minority students in each program, they said. About 90 percent of New Orleans's 85,000 public-school students are members of minorities; enrollment in New Orleans's Catholic schools is about 50 percent minority, officials of the respective districts reported.

Some of the magnet program's courses will be offered before and after school to accommodate Catholic-school students who aren't able to attend during the regular school day, they said.

The idea for the plan developed during conversations between the two districts' superintendents and is a natural outgrowth of other cooperative programs already in place, officials said.

For instance, they said, some Catholic-school students currently attend the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which is run by the Orleans Parish schools.

One of the new plan's goals is to attract more white students to the magnet programs, which are located in predominantly minority schools, Mr. Lloyd said.

Numerous civil-rights experts said last week that they knew of no similar joint desegregation plan involving both public- and private-school students.

The New Orleans grant was awarded under a provision of the magnet-school act that allows districts to develop voluntary desegregation programs. To be eligible for funding, the act states, the secretary of education is required to certify that the plan is "adequate under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the desegregation of minority-group segregated children."

New Orleans was determined to be eligible for the award because their plan "reduces the isolation of minority students in the public schools without increasing the isolation of minorities in schools that feed the magnets," Mr. Smith, the department's acting secretary for civil rights, said.

Other civil-rights experts said they knew of no other regulations governing desegregation plans adopted voluntarily for purposes of qualifying for a magnet grant.

"I don't think it is right to do" what New Orleans proposed, said Phyllis P. McClure, director of education for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. "The magnet-school act was designed to promote systemwide desegregation plans, not part-time desegregation at a few schools."

Several experts offered cautious praise for the program as a creative attempt to address the fears many white parents have about sending their children to predominantly minority schools, and said the idea may ultimately prove an effective tool to recruit them back into the public schools.

"If the arrangement is constitutional and puts the public schools in a position to attract students from the parochial schools, it may be a good idea," said David Tatel, a Washington-based lawyer and director of the office for civil rights under the Carter Administration.

The Education Department itself is planning to consider "whether after a certain time, parents in the private school system decide to send their children to the public schools," Ms. Coro, the department's director of school-improvement programs, said. "If they do, then we would say it was a successful program."

But officials involved with the program insist that it is not meant to entice parochial-school parents back into the public schools.

"We are not looking to take anybody else's students," said Mr. Lloyd, the compliance officer with the New Orleans public schools.

"Everyone is excited and enthusiastic about this program because it offers us an opportunity to really share in terms of curriculum and instruction," said Joseph Peyshod, an official with the Archdiocesan schools who helped design the program.

"For those reasons, everyone is very high in terms of expectations, not only for what happens this year, but down the road when we move on to some other activities," he said.

The Archdiocese's involvement in the plan also "raises some serious constitutional issues," said Mr. Conn of Americans United, which has pursued several lawsuits against publicly funded educational programs that serve religious-school students.

"We see it as yet another opening wedge by the Administration in its efforts to fund private or parochial schools," he said.

"It's a really sweet deal for the Archdiocese," he added. "They get input into public-school programs and gain access to expensive educational programs that they could never afford on their own."

Officials with the New Orleans public schools and the Archdiocese of New Orleans said they were confident, however, that they heeded all regulations and court rulings pertaining to church-state entanglement when devising the program.

In essence, they said, the new program is no different from such existing programs as Chapter 1 and vocational education, which are provided to parochial-schools students in public settings.

Education Department officials in each of the two offices responsible for reviewing the proposal apparently thought that the church-state issue had been reviewed and approved by the other office.

The civil-rights office reviewed the application only for its compliance with civil-rights laws and regulations, Mr. Smith said. The extent to which the plan fosters desegregation "and how they do it is left up to the program side," he said.

Ms. Coro, on the program side, said she "didn't believe that [review of the church-state issue] was necessary based on the fact that the ocr approved the voluntary desegregation plan."

Representative Hawkins said, however, that he was "very apprehensive about it."

"I would question the legality of it if the students are not enrolled in the public schools," he said, adding, "It will require a thorough investigation. Until we get all of the facts, we can't say we oppose the grant."

Vol. 09, Issue 01

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