Office Brings Private Education View to Federal Policy

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Ideally, Michelle Doyle will work herself out of a job someday.

As the director of the Department of Education's office of nonpublic education, one of her goals is to make the concerns of private school students so ingrained in the department's thinking on federal programs that an internal advocate would be unnecessary.

"It would be great if we could get to the point where the world of private education is understood enough, and the needs of private school students are understood enough, that it does become part and parcel of everyone's responsibility," the 47-year-old former private school teacher and administrator said in a recent interview. "My job here is to work with each of the different offices" to give the private school student's perspective.

Many educators may not even know the office of non-public education exists. It is small, to be sure, with just three professional staff members and one support person, and an annual budget of $335,000 this fiscal year.

Even so, the efforts of the office do not go entirely unnoticed.

"They're very effective in advocating the needs" of private school students, said Abba Cohen, the Washington director for Agudath Israel of America, which represents 600 Orthodox Jewish day schools. Other private school advocates echo the sentiment.

"They understand our view of the world," added John Holmes, the director of government affairs for the Association of Christian Schools International, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Three-Part Focus

Originally called the office of private education, the office was established in 1971 as part of the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Today, it is a part of the Department of Education's office of intergovernmental and interagency affairs.

According to Ms. Doyle, her office now focuses on three areas: influencing department programs and policies to protect the needs of private school students, handling complaints from the private school community about inequitable access to federal resources, and conducting outreach.

The Rev. William F. Davis, the representative for Roman Catholic schools and federal assistance at the Washington-based U.S. Catholic Conference, said Ms. Doyle has a keen "understanding of the rules and regulations that affect participation in government programs."

Although never huge, the office was not always as small as it is now. During Republican administrations in the 1980s, for instance, the former head of the office recalled, the office had a staff of seven or eight.

Charles J. O'Malley stressed that Ms. Doyle has done an admirable job, but that she faces some constraints that may have diminished the influence of the office.

"I had a larger staff, the nature of my position gave me more immediate access to the secretary, and I had the authority of being thought of as a senior staff member," said Mr. O'Malley, who stepped down as the head of the office in 1991.

When the Clinton administration came into power in 1993, the non-public education office was moved from the office of the secretary to the office of interagency and intergovernmental affairs, according to Ms. Doyle. Some private school advocates said they were worried about the implications of the move, but that they believe Ms. Doyle has the ear of Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

"It is obvious to me that the secretary admires Ms. Doyle a great deal ... and takes her counsel very seriously," Mr. Cohen said.

Today, perhaps not surprisingly, the main limitation on the office from the perspective of the private school community is the Clinton administration's staunch opposition to public funding for vouchers.

"Aside from the 500-pound gorilla [of vouchers], the non-public school office is doing what they can," Mr. Holmes said.

Ms. Doyle said administration officials have made clear that they don't support public money being used to cover the costs of private education, either through vouchers or tuition tax credits. But "I think they've been equally clear that they're very supportive of all eligible children, even children attending private schools, receiving services that federal programs are supposed to provide to them," she continued.

Before joining the Education Department as an education program specialist in 1992 and later taking the helm of the office in 1993, Ms. Doyle worked for nearly two decades in Catholic schools as a teacher, principal, and finally an assistant superintendent of schools in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va.

"I was on the receiving end, so to speak, of the federal programs just prior to coming to [the department]," she said.

When the department is drafting guidance and regulations or weighing in on federal legislation, Ms. Doyle's office does its best to ensure that the rights of private school students are protected. "It's extremely important that we get into [those efforts] from the ground floor," she said.

Mr. Cohen of Agudath Israel said one example of the office's success is certain clarifications to the recently released regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that protect special education aid for private school students.

Title I Complaints

The office also serves as a liaison between private school leaders and Education Department program offices for complaints about federal education programs that could not be resolved at the district or state level. Most complaints concern the $8 billion federal Title I program, which serves needy students in both public and private schools. All federal funds that go to private school students are routed through public school districts, which then distribute the money and services.

Roughly 15 to 20 complaints about Title I are elevated to the federal level each year, according to Ms. Doyle.

"Generally speaking, they come to us because the private school officials do not feel their students have received equitable services," she said. "Our goal is to get services going. It's not to be punitive."

On the outreach front, the office offers a World Wide Web site at, circulates a monthly newsletter to about 600 private school leaders, participates in conferences, and sponsors exhibits. Its staff has spent considerable time talking with schools about the U.S. Supreme Court's 1997 ruling allowing public school teachers into religious schools to provide remedial Title I services to needy students, and how it will affect the schools.

In the fall, the office will release an updated manual, last published in 1993, that examines how state laws affect private schools. The new version will also include information on how state laws affect home schooling.

Another upcoming publication is a primer on federal education programs in which the private school community can participate.

Ms. Doyle says such outreach is essential. "All the regulations and statutes in the world don't mean a thing ... if we don't get the word out," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 30, Pages 24, 26

Published in Print: April 7, 1999, as Office Brings Private Education View to Federal Policy
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