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Appeals court upholds ACE funds

Julie Bender | Wednesday, March 16, 2005

An appeals court upheld federal funding for Notre Dame’s teacher-training program, Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), last Tuesday, overturning a 2004 ruling that the AmeriCorps-based program violated a constitutional ban on establishment of religion by awarding tuition vouchers to participants. In a 3-0 decision, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Judge Raymond Randolph stated that taxpayer support of religious schools is constitutional as long as government funding goes to “programs of true private choice.” He wrote that the government is not promoting religion by funding programs such as ACE, which provide teachers for disadvantaged Catholic schools. “We’re obviously delighted with the court’s decision,” said John Staud, ACE director. “It was a unanimous decision, which is very important for ACE and for other faith-based organizations affected by the ruling.”This decision reversed a 2004 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler that the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs the AmeriCorps program, had violated the constitutional ban on establishment of religion by awarding federal funding to ACE teachers who only serve in Catholic schools. The 2004 ruling came as the result of a charge by the American Jewish Congress (AJC) that AmeriCorps unlawfully used federal money to promote the teaching of Christian values by awarding monetary vouchers to participants in programs like ACE, which assigns teachers to needy Catholic schools. Notre Dame joined the lawsuit filed against AmeriCorps as a defendant-intervener.”We believed all along that we were not in violation of the establishment of religion clause, and we’re pleased that the court saw this too,” Staud said. “For the past 11 years, it has been our practice to follow the AmeriCorps guidelines, so the religious activity of ACE participants has not counted toward the service hours required for the AmeriCorps stipend. Those hours come from the secular subjects that are taught, like chemistry and math.”The ACE program was founded in 1993 and since then has been training teachers for two-year commitments in underfunded parochial schools across the southern United States. After completing the two-year program, each participant receives a master’s degree in education from Notre Dame. ACE teachers-in-training are allotted a stipend of $12,000 per year from the schools in which they teach. In addition, most ACE participants are eligible to apply for and receive two annual $4,725 education vouchers through AmeriCorps. To qualify, the participant must complete 1,700 hours of service in or outside of the classroom that is of a non-religious affiliation. Through the ACE program, Notre Dame also receives grants of up to $400 per year for every full-time AmeriCorps member. This money covers nearly eight percent of salaries for the ACE faculty members who are teaching secular subjects.The court’s ruling will allow ACE to continue its service program and especially will help with recruitment of new participants, Staud said. “The AmeriCorps awards enable us to recruit broadly for ACE,” he said. “Participants tend to be recent college graduates who have significant loan indebtedness. The award is well deserved for these participants who are providing service for the country.”It would have been a big disappointment had the ruling gone the other way, making it more challenging to attract students with high debt,” he continued. “At the same time, the University strongly supports ACE, so we’re convinced nothing will stop the program. Catholic schools are too needy. We would just have had to been more creative and energetic in finding other sources of funding.”Last week’s ruling ensured the future of ACE at a critical time for Catholic schools throughout the country. There are nearly 8,000 Catholic schools in America, but last year only 34 new schools were opened, while more than 100 were closed. Within the past few months, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced it is planning on closing 23 schools, and the Brooklyn diocese said it would be closing 22 schools in Brooklyn and Queens. The Archdiocese of Detroit also has closed 21 schools in the past two years.”Now is a difficult time for Catholic schools nationally,” Staud said, “but ACE is committed to serve these schools for decades to come. The challenges are great, and many schools have confided that they would be unable to stay open if it weren’t for ACE. However, because we have so many motivated people who are part of the program, we are able to turn them loose on this problem. We’re in this for the long haul.”