Wheeler v. Barrera
417 U.S. 402 (1974)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Wheeler v. Barrera, 417 U.S. 402 (1974)

Wheeler v. Barrera

No. 762

Argued January 16, 1974

Decided June 10, 1974

417 U.S. 402




Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1966 (the Act) provides for federal funding of special programs for educationally deprived children in both public and private schools. Respondents, parents of children attending nonpublic schools in Kansas City, Mo., brought this class action, alleging that petitioner state school officials arbitrarily and illegally were approving Title I programs that deprived eligible nonpublic school children of services comparable to those offered eligible public school children, and seeking injunctive and other relief. Petitioners answered that the aid sought by respondents exceeded Title I's requirements and contravened the State's Constitution and state law and public policy. First Amendment issues were also raised. The District Court denied relief. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that: petitioners were violating the requirement of the Act and implementing regulations that educationally deprived nonpublic school children be afforded a program comparable to that provided in public schools; if "on the premises" special teaching services are furnished public school children, then comparable programs must be provided nonpublic school children; the state constitutional provision barring use of "public" school funds in private schools did not apply to Title I funds; the question whether Title I funds were "public" within the meaning of the State Constitution was governed by federal law; and, since no plan for "on the premises" instruction in nonpublic schools had yet been implemented, the court would refuse to pass on petitioners' claims that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment would be violated if Title I does require or permit such instruction.


1. At this stage of the proceedings, this Court cannot reach and decide whether Title I requires the assignment of publicly employed teachers to provide remedial instruction during regular school hours on the premises of private schools attended by Title I eligible students. Pp. 417 U. S. 415-426.

(a) While the Court of Appeals correctly ruled that the District Court erred in denying relief where it clearly appeared that

Page 417 U. S. 403

petitioners had failed to comply with the Act's comparability requirement, the Court of Appeals' opinion is not to be read to the effect that petitioners must submit and approve plans that employ the use of Title I teachers on private school premises during regular school hours. P. 417 U. S. 415.

(b) That court erred in holding that federal law governed the question whether "on the premises" private school instruction is permissible under Missouri law, since Title I evinces a dear intention that state constitutional spending proscriptions not be preempted as a condition of accepting federal funds. The key issue whether federal aid is money "donated to any state fund for public school purposes" within the meaning of the Missouri Constitution is purely a question of state, and not federal, law, and by characterizing the problem as one involving "federal," and not "state," funds, and then concluding that federal law governs, the Court of Appeals in effect nullified the Act's policy of accommodating state law. Pp. 417 U. S. 415-419.

(c) It was unnecessary for the Court of Appeals to reach the issue whether "on the premises" nonpublic school instruction is permissible under state law, since, in view of the fact that Title I does not obligate the State to provide such instruction, but only to provide "comparable" (not identical) services, the illegality of such instruction under state law would not provide a defense to respondents' charge of noncompliance with Title I. Pp. 417 U. S. 419-420.

(d) On remand, petitioners and the local school agency have the option to provide for "on the premises" instruction for nonpublic school children, but if they do not choose this method or if it turns out that state law prevents its use, then the following options remain: (1) they may approve a plan that does not utilize nonpublic school "on the premises" instruction but that still complies with the Act's comparability requirement; (2) they may submit a plan that eliminates "on the premises" instruction in public schools and may resort, instead, to other means, such as neutral sites or summer programs; or (3) they may choose not to participate at all in the Title I program. Pp. 417 U. S. 421-426.

2. The Court of Appeals properly declined to pass on the First Amendment issue, since no order requiring "on the premises" nonpublic school instruction having been entered, the matter was not ripe for review. Pp. 417 U. S. 426-427.

3. While, under the Act, respondents are entitled to comparable services, and therefore to relief, they are not entitled to any particular form of service, and it is the role of state and local agencies,

Page 417 U. S. 404

not of the federal courts, at least at this stage, to formulate a suitable plan. Pp. 417 U. S. 427-428.

475 F.2d 1338, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 417 U. S. 428. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 417 U. S. 428. MARSHALL, J., concurred in the result. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 417 U. S. 429.

Page 417 U. S. 405

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 241a et seq., provides for federal funding of special programs for educationally deprived children in both public and private schools.

This suit was instituted on behalf of parochial school students who were eligible for Title I benefits and who claimed that the public school authorities in their area, in violation of the Act, failed to provide adequate Title I programs for private school children as compared with those programs provided for public school children. The defendants answered that the extensive aid sought by the plaintiffs exceeded the requirements of Title I and contravened the State's Constitution and state law and public policy. First Amendment rights were also raised by the parties. The District Court, concluding that the State had fulfilled its Title I obligations, denied relief. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, by a divided vote, reversed. 475 F.2d 1338 (1973). We granted certiorari to examine serious questions that appeared to be present as to the scope and constitutionality of Title I. 414 U.S. 908 (1973).


Title I is the first federal aid to education program authorizing assistance for private school children as well as for public school children. The Congress, by its statutory declaration of policy, [Footnote 1] and otherwise, recognized

Page 417 U. S. 406

that all children from educationally deprived areas do not necessarily attend the public schools, and that, since the legislative aim was to provide needed assistance to educationally deprived children, rather than to specific schools, it was necessary to include eligible private school children among the beneficiaries of the Act. [Footnote 2]

Since the Act was designed to be administered by local public education officials, [Footnote 3] a number of problems naturally arise in the delivery of services to eligible private school pupils. Under the administrative structure envisioned by the Act, the primary responsibility for designing and effectuating a Title I program rests with what the Act and the implementing regulations describe as the "local educational

Page 417 U. S. 407

agency." [Footnote 4] This local agency submits to the "State educational agency" [Footnote 5] a proposed program designed to meet the special educational needs of educationally deprived children in school attendance areas with high concentrations of children from low income families. The state agency then must approve the local plan and, in turn, forward the approved proposal to the United States Commissioner of Education, who has the ultimate responsibility for administering the program and dispensing the appropriated and allocated funds. In order to receive state approval, the proposed plan, among other requirements, must be designed to provide the eligible private school students services that are "comparable in quality, scope, and opportunity for participation to those provided for public school children with need of equally high priority." United States Office of Education (USOE) Program Guide No. 44,

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