New York Prelate Floats School Plan

Article excerpt

An offer by New York Roman Catholic Cardinal John J. O'Connor to have his archdiocese educate--for a fee--as many as 1,000 New York public school pupils in Catholic schools has stirred a new round of church-state controversy in the city. The controversy erupted September 8 when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called the offer by O'Connor an "excellent proposal" and one "worth doing."

Although O'Connor's offer is not new, the proposal has taken on new life with Giuliani's endorsement--combined with the fact that the public system that serves 1 million children opened the school year with its worst overcrowding in decades, leaving thousands of students without desks or classrooms. The archdiocese says its schools can accommodate extra students.

Under the plan, which supporters said would be voluntary for the families of children ranking scholastically in the bottom 5 percent of their classes, the Catholic schools would receive full tuition for each student--between 52,000 and $3,000 a year. But the proposal has drawn fire from some Jewish and church-state separation groups.

"The issue of overcrowding in our New York City public schools classrooms cannot be answered by putting some students into Catholic parochial schools . . . for it is a clear violation of church-state separation," said Howard Teich, president of the American Jewish Congress's Metropolitan New York region. Teich noted that the AJC "has long held the view, supported by the courts, that direct funding of parochial schools with public funds violates the First Amendment's requirement of separation between church and state."

Teich stated that while Catholic parochial schools do provide educational opportunities to a significant number of non-Catholic pupils, "that choice has been made by parents for their children, and individually funded by the parents. That is a far cry from the proposal of Mayor Giuliani, which would have the tuition for parochial education paid out of public funds and students transferred without parental choice to sectarian schools."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, also expressed opposition. "For more than 150 years, state and federal courts have rejected all proposals that would have resulted in the public funding of religious and parochial education," said Steven K. …