Law & Courts

Religious Schools Welcome Back On-Site Title I Services

By Mark Walsh — June 24, 1998 6 min read

The crucifix came down from the wall in Room No. 6 at Sacred Heart Primary School last fall, but educators at the Roman Catholic school were more than happy to see it go.

The removal of religious symbols from the small classroom meant the return of public school teachers to deliver federally financed remedial education services.

“This is a lovely room,” Maxine Bender, a New York City public school teacher who provides remedial reading instruction to 43 Sacred Heart pupils, said earlier this month. “It makes a tremendous difference to be back inside the building.”

Ms. Bender can once again conduct her lessons inside this parochial school in the Bronx because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision a year ago in Agostini v. Felton. In Agostini, the justices overturned their own 1985 ruling that had barred public school teachers from providing Title I services on the premises of religious schools. (“Vt. Voucher Claim Rejected,” July 9, 1997.)

Federal officials say most school districts and religious schools welcomed the Agostini ruling, although the timing made it difficult to arrange to send public school teachers back into religious schools right away.

In some states, such as California and Texas, public school teachers have returned to half or fewer of the religious schools with children eligible for Title I services.

“I think the decision was something that happened after plans were in place for this school year,” said Mary Jean LeTendre, the director of compensatory education programs for the U.S. Department of Education. “While not every teacher is back in the private schools, there are more meetings [between public and religious school] teachers and with families” on private school premises, she added.

Decision Overturned

The Supreme Court cases evolved from a 1978 lawsuit against the New York City board of education by a group known as the Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty, or PEARL. The group argued that the presence of public school teachers in religious schools created a symbolic union of church and state in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The group won the 1985 high court case, known as Aguilar v. Felton, forcing public and private school leaders to find alternatives to serve religious school students. Congress has mandated since the inception of the Title I program in 1965 that eligible children in private schools be served.

Many districts found after the decision 13 years ago that the easiest way to continue services was to park mobile classrooms in front of or near religious schools. Other methods included computer-aided instruction in religious schools, with no direct involvement by public school teachers, and the use of other sites such as nearby public school classrooms.

The New York school board led the legal fight to get the 1985 Aguilar decision overturned, citing the high cost of the alternative delivery methods. Its custom-made mobile classrooms cost more than $100,000 a year each to lease, and the district had spent more than $100 million since the ruling to comply with Aguilar.

In reversing its finding in Aguilar, the high court concluded last June that its church-state case law had fundamentally shifted since 1985. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said there was no reason to think that public school Title I teachers would give religious lessons to religious school students.

More Schools Participate

Although districts were told by the Education Department they could immediately send public school teachers back into religious schools, some have had to wait. In New York City and elsewhere, many religious schools don’t have the space for Title I classes because of bulging enrollments.

Margaret Weiss, the director of the New York system’s bureau of nonpublic schools, said 80 percent of Title I instruction involving private school students was back on the premises of the private schools in this past academic year.

The program here serves 21,000 students in 259 nonpublic schools. Almost all are religious schools. A majority are Roman Catholic, but Jewish, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Islamic schools with eligible students are also served.

“The implementation went very well,” Ms. Weiss said. The program added 20 schools that under Aguilar did not participate because officials did not want their children leaving the premises for Title I, she said.

Throughout the city, 45 schools did not have room to bring public school teachers back onto their premises, she said. In most of those, services are still provided in the big, blue-and-white custom vans known here as mobile instructional units, or mius.

That is the case at Sacred Heart Middle School, which is adjacent to the K-5 Sacred Heart Primary School. The primary school had a spare room available that allowed Ms. Bender and another Title I teacher to return to the building. But Title I students from the middle school still troop out to the mobile classroom for remediation about twice a week.

Brother Steve Milan, the middle school principal, said there was simply no room this year to bring the Title I teacher back into his building. “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing,” he said.

The complaints about the MIUs are many. Students lose time bundling up to go outside. Sometimes inclement weather wipes out remedial classes altogether. The classrooms are claustrophobic and loud, with the constant hum of heaters or air conditioning units.

In the lone mobile unit still at Sacred Heart’s middle school, Olive Tomlinson was helping 10 students read Maniac Magee earlier this month.

“I can’t hear you, baby,” she said, telling students to speak up.

Many of the costs of special vans and other alternative delivery methods have been covered by an allocation in the federal Title I budget. For several years, the figure has been $41 million, out of a total Title I budget of $7.9 billion in the current fiscal year.

In light of the Agostini decision last year, the Clinton administration has proposed trimming the capital-expense funding to $10 million in fiscal 1999, then to zero the next year.

To the Bus

Religious school leaders are almost universal in their support for Title I services. At Sacred Heart Primary, 74 percent of the pupils are poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-lunch program, said Joanne Walsh, the principal. About 40 percent of the school’s 870 students meet the income and academic guidelines to qualify for Title I remediation.

More eligible primary school students are participating now that Title I services are back in the Sacred Heart building, Ms Walsh said. Some parents didn’t want their children going to the MIUs. Other students had asthma and couldn’t stand to be in the mobile classrooms.

The public school teachers say they benefit, too. Under Aguilar, the 1985 ruling, they had to plot to meet religious school teachers in the parking lot or other neutral territory to discuss a child’s progress. Or they might use their brief bathroom breaks in the building to sneak a consultation.

Stanley Geller, the lawyer who argued both Supreme Court cases for PEARL, said the group remains concerned that, down the road, some public Title I teachers will foster the religious mission of the private schools in which they work.

“The board of education doesn’t want to violate the rules,” he said. But it cannot effectively monitor its teachers in religious schools all the time, and some might be tempted to help with religious lessons, he argued.

Ms. Bender, who has been in the Title I program for nonpublic school students for nine years, said such fears are off base.

“I have nothing at all to do with religion,” she said as her students worked on writing sentences.

Ms. Walsh said Sacred Heart students enjoy going to the Title I classroom. And even though the services have returned to the school building, “they say, ‘I’m going to the bus.’ They’ve been conditioned,” she said.

To which Brother Milan, the middle school principal, said, “Maybe we’ll repaint the [Title I] room in a bus motif.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 1998 edition of Education Week as Religious Schools Welcome Back On-Site Title I Services

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