Don’t Be Afraid to Rock the Boat

*Editor’s Note: republished from Today’s Catholic Teacher
written by Dr. Charles J. O’Malley

Over the last seven years I’ve been privileged to discuss with you a variety of issues, ranging from parental choice to changes in Federal program participation. We’ve discussed how you, as teachers and administrators in Catholic schools can be effective “lobbyists” , and what impact or effect recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Aguilar v. Felton and Agostini v. Felton) will have on you and your students. We’ve discussed the importance of your “hanging in there” by continuing to fight for what is rightfully due you and your students.

While attending teacher/administrators’ conferences, I’ve received many questions and comments regarding the efficacy of participating in Federal programs. Too much paper work; too many difficulties in getting services for eligible students; too many difficulties in determining eligibility of low-income students; too difficult to find classroom space for Title 1 instruction; too difficult to (you fill in the blanks).

In the 33 years since the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a very considerable amount of “blood, sweat , toil and tears” has been expended by Catholic school leaders, administrators, government officials, and others to ensure that equitable and high-quality instructional services are provided your students. Your predecessors have overcome obstacles such as the reluctance of some school district officials to provide services to Catholic school students, the inequities brought about by the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Aguilar v. Felton, and, more recently, the inequities resultant from the 1994 reauthorization of Title 1.

In mid-July of this year the U.S. Department of Education transmitted to Congress a Congressionally-mandated report on the effects of the changes brought about by the 1994 reauthorization. The results of the study seemed to surprise the authors and some within the U.S. Department of Education, although those who have been involved in fighting for equitable services for Catholic school children found the results gave credence to their claims of inequitable services.

Foremost among the findings were data showing glaring discrepancies between what local school district administrators reported regarding consultation with private school administrators and participation of private school children in Title 1 programs, and “reality”.

What’s all this leading up to? Two issues become paramount. The first is that of reauthorization of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA – formerly the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965). The U.S. Department of Education has convened open hearings on the effectiveness of Title 1, and soon Congress will be determining whether Title 1 should be re-funded — and — if re-funded to what extent and with what changes. There’s discussion of returning to a “block grant” concept, i.e., the Federal government sending the Federal dollars to the states, and letting the states determine how the dollars should be spent. If Congress so determines, will the rights of private school students be protected? Will there be battles in each state over the extent to which private school children participate? Will you have the opportunity to select the most effective program for you eligible students, i.e., choosing between a third-party contractor such as READS, Sylvan, Education Inroads, etc., and a teacher assigned your school by the school district? Will the criterion of “poverty” remain as a major determinant of eligibility? If so, will the number of your students eligible to participate continue to decline?

The second paramount issue is a little more delicate to broach. Essentially, the issue is the commitment of you Catholic school teachers and administrators to fight to maintain your participation in Title 1 and in other governmental programs.

The U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Catholic Conference, state Catholic conferences and dioceses have prepared materials which provide “thumbnail” sketches of the programs, what services are available, how to obtain these services, and what you can do if the local school districts are reluctant to provide quality and equitable services.

It involves you being willing to be aggressive to find out what you need to do in order to receive the services for you students. That means you will not necessarily accept “meaningless” proffers from the public school authorities. For example, back in the late 1960’s, in the early years after the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Catholic school student involvement was typically as follows:

“Sister, if you sign off on this form, our school district will provide your teachers and administrators with copies of materials developed through our project. We’ll even provide them free of charge.”

“Sister, we called your office in late July to advise you of a meeting we’re having on August ..??. However, no one answered, so we thought you wouldn’t be interested.”

“Father, we are opening the new media center we built using the Federal money we received. We are having a punch and cookies reception Sunday afternoon. Please come.”

“We can provide Title 1 services to your students. However, they will have to come to our schools in order to receive them…(other options: services to your students will have to be delivered after school or in the summer.)”

In the early 1970’s, the tone began to change. Firm, aggressive positions held by representatives of U.S. Catholic Conference, state conferences, dioceses which employed full-time governmental program directors (“hired guns”, as many of them were called), and eventually the U.S. Office of Education (before it became a department) resulted in fairly good services being provided to eligible private school students. Unfortunately, we lost considerable ground after the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court’s Aguilar v. Felton decision. Again, it took firm, aggressive action by the U.S. Catholic Conference, state Catholic conferences and diocesan administrators and the U.S. Department of Education to keep those losses at a minimum.

In 1994, Congress, during the reauthorizaton process, made several major changes in the Title 1 formula. Title 1 became a program focusing on poverty rather than educational need. Eligibility was based on participation in programs such as the School Lunch program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and similar poverty-indexed programs. Since most Catholic — and private schools do not participate in these programs, Catholic school administrators were unable to determine eligibility for their students, resulting in a significant decrease in their participation. Administrators were understandably reluctant to serve as collectors of census data or sensitive family income information to document their students’ eligibility. As the program became more complex, Catholic. school administrators and teachers decided the “minimum” returns were not worth the effort, so they dropped out of the fight

TIME TO ROCK THE BOAT

I’ve previously referred to the need for “aggression” on your parts. Ask your diocesan superintendent to schedule briefings on federal programs for you and your colleagues. Know what services your students are eligible to receive. Know what recourse you have if the public school officials are reluctant to work with you. Be willing to fight for what is rightfully yours. Don’t feel “guilty” if a public school official accuses you of taking money away from “needy” public school children. Please remember two very important facts.

1. Public school districts receive their Title 1 allocations based on a number of criteria, including total number of school age children. This number includes your students — which means that your students are basically generating their own dollars. They are not taking dollars away from public school children.

2. The odds are many of your students — particularly those graduating from Catholic elementary school — will be going on to public junior or senior high school. It’s not “private vs. public”. It’s children who need services.

In conclusion, you Catholic school administrators and teachers can make a difference in whether your students receive their fair share of quality educational services. The degree to which this happens depends on how willing you are to enter the frey. For the sake of your students and in the memory of those who gave so much of themselves 1965 to provide you with these opportunities, learn what your fair share is. Then, get in there and fight for it! Your students and their parents deserve your best efforts. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat! Godspeed!

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