Making Education Law Work for Catholic Schools

By McDonald, Dale | Momentum, February/March 2007 | Go to article overview

Making Education Law Work for Catholic Schools


McDonald, Dale, Momentum


Changing mindsets is a key factor in making education law work for Catholic school students, teachers and families

As far back as the 1940s, attempts were made to enact legislation to provide federal aid to elementary and secondary schools. These efforts failed because of a lack of agreement on ideological grounds relative to state and local autonomy, civil rights and inclusion of private and religious schools in programs. However, while general aid was being debated, programs of limited assistance, the National School Lunch Act (1946) and the National Defense Education Act (1958), were enacted.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proposed legislation to assist education as part of his War on Poverty agenda. In order to secure passage, Congress and the president reached a compromise over the issue of inclusion of private schools. They agreed upon two principles for providing services to students in public, private and religious schools that remain the underpinnings of federal aid. These principles are: (1) "child benefit" that provides assistance or services primarily for students and only incidentally for the school they attend, and (2) "public trusteeship" by which the aid is channeled through public authorities who act as accountable trustees on behalf of all the eligible children in their community, regardless of the type of school the students attend.

ESEA a First Step

The Elementary and secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was the first step in the passage of federal legislation that impacts elementary and secondary education. Subsequently, other laws have been enacted pertinent to inclusion of students with disabilities, access to higher education, disaster assistance, recognition programs, teacher loan cancellation and a variety of other forms of aid for schools, students, teachers and families. Many of these federal education laws include private and religious schools, students and teachers, but often they are not utilized maximally.

While many of the federal education laws require the equitable participation of students in private schools, the implementation process often requires vigilance, persistence and insistence on the part of private school officials to "navigate the system." Several ideologies are operative in the negotiation processes that militate against fair and equitable application of the law.

Public trusteeship is confused with ownership. The public officials who administer the federal funds for programs have no claim on those monies as the sole province of public schools. Regardless of personal beliefs (about how separation of church and state is to be interpreted, the laws, regulations and guidance documents detail how private schools are to be included. The public officials do not have discretion about which programs they wish to make available to private schools.

Policy makers think primarily of public schools. The term "school," unless specifically designated as "public" in federal law, refers to any type of elementary and secondary school that meets the definition of such in the Elementary and secondary Education Act. Often private schools are not on the radar screen unless attention is called to them. Two recent incidents point to this fact.

When hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, legislative proposals for providing aid were directed solely toward public schools. Intense lobbying efforts by private school interests produced a beneficial result for private schools as well as public schools. Unfortunately, Katrina legislation did not have a lasting impact.

Recently, the federal government launched the America is Safer When Our Schools are Safer initiative. …

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