Tutoring programs: a good thing

Sunday, December 15, 1996

A number of churches in our city hold after-school tutorial
programs in their church buildings for public school students.
Is there any First Amendment problem if the school district works
with the churches to coordinate the tutorials with the work the
students are learning in school? For example, is it constitutional
to send school officials to the churches to discuss with tutors
how to make best use of their program?
Robert Crouch,

The cooperation you describe between public schools and religious
communities is not only constitutional — it is a very good idea.

Schools should do as much as possible to involve the larger community,
including business, religious, and civic organizations, in support
of public education.

Tutorial programs in churches are excellent examples of how religious
groups and schools can work together toward the shared goal of
helping students succeed. Under the First Amendment, public schools
could not, of course, pay religious communities for tutors. But
schools can cooperate with churches and other religious groups
to help coordinate the academic needs of the students with the
work of the tutors.

Cooperation can take many forms. In Broken Arrow, Okla., for
example, the school district has a program called “In Touch”
that establishes regular communication between the schools and
the religious communities of the city. Under this program, a
religious group may request that a school administrator be assigned
to keep in touch with it on a regular basis.

Broken Arrow Superintendent Jerry Hill reports that these lines
of communication greatly benefit the school district by giving
schools an opportunity to let the religious communities know accurately
and directly what is going on in the schools. Religious groups
are pleased because they hear about school-district activities
first-hand, and are able to communicate questions and concerns.

Other school districts make sure that religious communities are
well-represented on various committees. This is particularly
important when the district is working in such areas as character
education, religious-liberty policies, or sex education. In Dallas,
for example, the Religious Community Task Force, whose members
came from many faith groups, put together an extensive guide for
teachers and administrators that outlines the religious practices
and holidays of students in the district.

Another form of cooperation in some school districts is “released
time.” Under this arrangement, students are released for
off-campus religious instruction during the school day. The U.S.
Supreme Court has ruled such programs constitutional. In an opinion
written by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court stated: “When
the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with
religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events
to accommodate sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions.”

School districts do not have to allow released time, but they
may do so. While the school may set the day and time for such
programs, recruitment, transportation, attendance and other logistics
are the responsibility of the participating religious groups.
Parents must give permission for students to participate.

Public schools belong to all citizens. The success of public
education depends on the trust and support of all sectors of the
community, including the churches, synagogues, mosques, and other
religious institutions. Cooperation and communication are key
ways to build and sustain that support.