This article focuses on the argument over state aid to nonpublic education in Rhode Island in the late 1960s. The author examines the acrimonious debate surrounding the proposed 1968 tuition-grant bill sponsored by the Rhode Island chapter of the Citizens for Educational Freedom, a national group formed in 1959, dedicated to achieving state aid to nonpublic education.
Keywords: Citizens for Educational Freedom (CEF); Protestants and Other Americans United (POAU); parochial school education; school funding; tuition grants
The history of the Rhode Island federation of Citizens for Educational Freedom (CEF) and its quest for public funds for private schools is directly connected to a profound battle over the meaning of educational diversity. The eminent constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson maintains that it "is in thinking about public schools that we most directly confront the questions of social reproduction and the inculcation of values that constitute us as a distinctive social order."1 According to opponents of aid to nonpublic education, if nonpublic schools, particularly religious schools, are subsidized by public tax money, the state may become involved in aiding a system that "might turn out to be subversive, intolerant, or fraudulent."2 For these critics, the role of the courts and the legislative process is to militantly use the establishment clause of the First Amendment as a sword against any legislative decisions that aid religious schools. Any assistance provided by the state to religious schools, in this view, inevitably leads to excessive entanglement of the secular and religious realms and therefore threatens the vitality of the public education system.
CEF, which had as its goal the appropriation of state funds for private education, believed otherwise.3 CEF's declared purpose was "to secure parents' civil rights in education and, thus, freedom of choice in education without penalty for choice of an independent school."4 The proposed 1968 tuition-grant bill represented the political vehicle that could achieve their goals. But converts to the Rhode Island CEF's position began to dwindle once the debate commenced over the bill. Although the measure was designed to aid all nonpublic school students, the majority of the nonpublic block was run under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Raymond Durfee, a Cranston state representative, labeled the proposed bill as "the most dangerous" bill "to our way of life that has come before this body since I have been in the legislature."5
A small group of concerned Catholic parents formed the Rhode Island CEF chapter in March 1962. 6 The national organization was formed three years earlier in St. Louis, Missouri, by Mae Duggan, a Catholic laywoman who continues the fight for public aid to private education to this day. Whereas the Rhode Island CEF chapter experienced only moderate growth in its initial years, membership grew from 800 in the autumn of 1967 to 2,000 in early 1968 and to 5,000 by the spring of that year. By 1968, the roster had broadened outside Catholic circles and included an impressive nondenominational contingent.7
State aid to private education was one of the most formidable public policy issues in the post- World War II period in Rhode Island.8 The basic principle underlying the appeals for aid to nonpublic education - from transportation in the 1950s, the use of public textbooks in the early 1960s, and tuition grants in 1968 to nonpublic schoolteacher salary supplements at the end of the decade - centered on the idea that it was unjust for the state to deny educational benefits, to which a child or family would otherwise be entitled, on the basis of the family's decision to educate the child in a religious setting.9 The 1960s began with the debate over the funding of textbooks for private school students. In September 1961, Monsignor Arthur T. Geoghegan, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Providence, made a request for such aid to the state commissioner of education. …