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The Supreme Court says Title I teachers can return to religious schools. Has it paved the way for vouchers?

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Public school teachers will be heading back into religious schools this fall to provide remedial classes to needy students, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of a 1985 decision that had relegated such services to mobile vans and other sites.

The Department of Education has advised school districts that there is no reason to delay implementing the court's 5-4 decision that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit Title I instructors from serving eligible religious school students on the premises of their schools. "They can begin an immediate transition," said Mary Jean LeTendre, director of the Title I program for the department.

Meanwhile, educators and legal experts have begun to debate the broader impact of the court's June 23 decision in Agostini vs. Felton. Many advocates of school choice argue that the ruling has opened the door for voucher programs in which the government would pay for children to attend religious schools. Others see it as a limited ruling that would not allow government funding to reach the treasuries of church-affiliated schools.

In the Agostini decision, the high court overturned its own 12-year-old ruling in Aguilar vs. Felton, which stipulated that sending public school teachers into religious schools violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion. Both rulings involved New York City's Title I program.

Writing for the majority in the new case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor declared that sending Title I teachers into religious schools with the right safeguards "does not run afoul of any of three primary criteria we currently use to evaluate whether government aid has the effect of advancing religion. It does not result in governmental indoctrination; define its recipients by reference to religion; or create an excessive entanglement."

O'Connor wrote that two high court rulings since 1985 have significantly altered the church-state landscape and undermined the Aguilar ruling. The first was a 1986 decision that upheld a vocational-tuition grant for a blind student who wished to use it to attend a Christian seminary. The second was a 1993 ruling that authorized a school district to provide a sign language interpreter for a deaf student attending a Roman Catholic high school.

Writing the main dissent, Justice David Souter said the result of the majority's ruling was to "authorize direct state aid to religious institutions on an unparalleled scale." He expressed fear that the ruling will allow the government to pay for "the entire cost of instruction provided in any ostensibly secular subject in any religious school."

Many public school groups, despite their traditional support for a strong separation of church and state, had come to dislike the 1985 ruling because of the extra costs and burdens it imposed on serving religious school children. (Such students have been eligible for Title I aid since the program was passed by Congress in 1965.) New York City alone took more than $6 million off the top of its Title I allocation last year to cover expenses associated with mobile vans and other alternative sites for Title I classes.

"From a practical point of view, having the teachers back in school will be much better for the students to spend time on task," says Joanne Walsh, principal at Sacred Heart Primary School in the Bronx. "It just makes more sense."

The big issue now is whether the Agostini ruling will have an impact on other forms of government aid to religious schools. Voucher supporters found much to like in Justice O'Connor's opinion. "The decision should clear the way for more successful choice efforts, like those we currently advance in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Vermont," says Clint Bolick of the Washington-based Institute for Justice, a conservative legal-advocacy group.

But Bolick's enthusiasm may be premature. A Vermont judge examined the Agostini decision this summer and still ruled against a public school district that wanted to pay to send some of its students to a Catholic high school.

Secretary of Education Richard Riley went out of his way this summer to argue that the ruling--which the Clinton administration supports--did not speak to issues involving private school choice. The decision, he said, " did not address the constitutionality of vouchers."

Still, advocates of strict church-state separation were troubled by the court's ruling. Lisa Thurau, executive director of the New York City-based National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty, said any challenge to government aid to religious schools will be more difficult under Agostini.

"The prohibition on direct aid to religious schools," she complained, "has been eviscerated by this Supreme Court."

Vol. 09, Issue 01, Pages 11, 13

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