These days stark lines are drawn between public and private schools, but the boundaries were much fuzzier in the 19th century, as more Catholics moved to the United States.
“You have large numbers of Catholics,” Rutgers University historian Benjamin Justice said. “The church is not a big fan of public education, and they have the political clout at the local level to create different kinds of arrangements for schooling.”
In 1936, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a law guaranteeing equal transportation for parochial and private school students. It was controversial, dividing Catholics and Protestants around the state. The law evolved over time, but the mandate still remains, making Massachusetts one of 29 states where parochial students are entitled to transportation at public expense. The Massachusetts law operates with little mention, but costs Boston, Worcester and Brockton a combined $3.4 million each year.
After the state laws were passed, the transportation controversy remained hot for years, especially in the Northeast.
Transportation Is Secular
In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in after a New Jersey resident filed a lawsuit arguing that reimbursements paid to parochial school students for their transportation costs violated the Constitution’s First Amendment. In a landmark decision, Everson v. Board of Education, the court ruled the payments permissible, because public schools students also received the reimbursements, the money was paid directly to parents and students, and transportation is secular.
That decision didn’t appear to calm down interest in the Massachusetts law. In 1950, the Harvard Club sponsored a debate between government insiders and academics. Patrick McDonough, a member of the Governor's Council, argued for keeping the law to bus parochial students.
“The general public welfare of the state makes it mandatory to provide police, fire and other tax-supported services to all of the citizens of the state, irrespective of race, creed or color,” McDonough said. “If bus transportation is authorized, then it should be for all children.”
Kirtley Mather, a Harvard University professor and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, argued for repealing the law.
“The issue is no small matter, but cuts to the very fundamentals of American democracy,” Mather said. “An attempt to aid parochial schools is but a thin edge of a wedge which, if driven further, will wreck the basic foundation of our republic.”
Push For Bigger Change
In the 1980s and 1990s Massachusetts lawmakers tried to amend the state constitution to allow for more direct public aid to Catholic schools. State Representative Byron Rushing, who had just been elected, recalled he quickly got involved in a movement to block the constitutional amendment and stop the public payments for busing.
“What allows us to have freedom of religion is also allowed by making sure the government doesn’t support any one religion over another religion,” Rushing said in a recent interview.
In Boston, 1,177 Catholic school students last year received bus service or MBTA passes, which cost Boston Public Schools $1.9 million, according to figures the district provided. Altogether, the city spent more than $2.3 million on transportation for Catholic and other private school students. Worcester Public Schools spent $700,000 busing private and parochial students during the 2017-2018 school year. Brockton spent $400,000 on these students during the same time period.
Officials from the Archdiocese of Boston say this law helps its students.
“It’s not like it’s an additional asset that no one else gets,” Terrence Donilon, secretary of communications for the Archdiocese of Boston, said. “They need this to assist them in their ability to get to and from school.”
Catholic schools provide a “valuable service” to Boston, Donilon said, since these families pay property taxes but don’t send their kids to public school.
“If Catholic schools didn’t exist, in any of our cities or towns throughout the Commonwealth, many of those students would go to public schools,” Donilon added.
If more students attended Boston Public Schools, officials there say they’d likely get more state and federal money for educating those kids.
A Divisive Debate
As Boston has tried to cut transportation costs over the years, school officials have looked for ways to stop paying for parochial students to get to school. Former Superintendent Carol Johnson sought legal advice as to whether the district could stop busing private and parochial students, but the district ultimately continued providing those services.
Still looking to save on transportation costs, district officials said they’re now focused on making busing more efficient so they can “return more money to the classroom.” Last year, the district spent $122 million on transportation, which includes busing for regular, charter school, special education and homeless students.
“A reduction in the district's legal obligation to provide transportation for private, parochial and charter schools would only be one component in a multi-faceted approach to operational reforms,” School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto wrote in a statement. “The committee has asked the district to focus on efficiencies in bus routing and facilities solutions."
Even if Boston school officials lobbied to change the law, Rushing doubted his colleagues would have the stomach to repeal it.
“There are many of my colleagues who’d be reluctant to take this up because they don’t want to have this whole very divisive debate again.” Rushing said.
The state Legislature will be studying school transportation costs, including busing for private and parochial school students. A report is due sometime next year.
This article has been updated to include busing information from Brockton. Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.