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La. Parochial Schools Laud Ruling

June 29, 2000

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The computer labs at Archbishop Rummel High School are a testament to the way Louisiana has directed taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools, long before the Supreme Court said it was OK.

``The computers are an integral part of the curriculum,″ said Denise Otillio, who used a $78,000 state grant to set up a writing lab with 28 computer-equipped work stations at the school in suburban New Orleans.

The state started a technology fund three years ago that has since allocated about $50 million to public, private and religious schools.

Experts say similar state programs across the country were bolstered Wednesday by a decision in a key federal case. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said a Louisiana parish can distribute federal money for instructional equipment _ including computers, books, maps and film strip projectors _ to private schools as long as it’s done in a ``secular, neutral and nonideological″ way.

The decision says the funding doesn’t violate the constitutionally guaranteed separation of government and religion.

``The decision has far reaching implications for state programs of aid to students in private schools,″ said Joe McTighe, director for the Council of American Private Education in Germantown, Md. ``Any state program like this that faced the possibility of a constitutional challenge is now safe.″

The ruling, which overturns two previous Supreme Court bans on giving public materials to parochial schools, was praised by supporters of private school tuition vouchers, government initiatives to help parents whose children do not attend public schools.

Public school officials, however, said they could be sued over Bible lessons that show up on computers they’ve bought.

``Once you are connected to the Internet, this technology could be used for religious instruction,″ said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

In Louisiana, where funding and performance of public schools rank at the bottom nationally, many middle- and higher-income families send their children to private schools; attendance last year was about 115,000.

The court decision stemmed from a 1985 challenge by three taxpayers in Jefferson Parish over the participation by more than 40 religious schools in a federal program that helps pay for learning materials. The Clinton administration later defended the program as it sought to protect its $425 million effort to connect every American classroom, in public and private schools, to the Internet.

Kirby Ducote, a spokesman for the state’s Catholic schools, said a court ruling in favor of the taxpayers would have forced the removal of school materials ``and that would have caused chaos.″

The ruling did not bother state Education Superintendent Cecil Picard, who said Louisiana public school officials have long sought to cooperate with private schools in sharing resources.

``Louisiana’s history of being generous with nonpublic schools is nothing new,″ Picard said. ``We’re doing a lot, and we want to continue to provide transportation, books and things of that nature.″

The American Civil Liberties Union, which promotes the separation of government and religion, criticized the Supreme Court ruling.

``We have to redouble our efforts to make sure public funds never flow to religious purposes,″ said Joe Cook, Louisiana director for the ACLU. ``Computers, software and TV sets can be used to promote religion. These units are not made to reject religious material.″

Cook added that allowing private schools to share tax money used for educational materials will divert funds public schools otherwise could have used for fixing roofs and other necessary expenses.

``In Louisiana, this is going to siphon away more money from public schools whose funding is already at the bottom in the nation,″ Cook said.

But Rodney Thoulion, education spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which includes 104 schools across eight parishes, said parents of private school students pay taxes that fund public schools, even though their children do not attend them.

The ruling ``is about money following students, not being given to a religious group,″ Thoulion said.


On the Net: The decision in Mitchell vs. Helms: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct or http://www.supremecourtus.gov

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