Spotlight: Alternative Education Fighter


In the spring of 1970, a month after Kent State, Ed Nagel chucked four years' worth of tenure as a New York public high school teacher. He would no longer abide teaching kids about a way of life he was so unsure about.

"At one point, I suddenly realized that I couldn't do it anymore—teach in a public school," Nagel, then 28, recalls. "My daughter was kindergarten age, and I couldn't let her proceed through a System I had so little respect for."

His search for the right alternative led the Nagel family to visit (often for days at a time) a catalogue list of more than 100 counterculture and community schools. They finally settled in Santa Fe, at a school operated cooperatively by parents of 13 children. The school's conceptual base was radical—that a child will learn best what he personally is most interested in. A standardized curriculum was unthinkable among the parent-operators, who switch duties and responsibilities on a regular basis. Some sessions, Nagel performs the role of "principal"; others, the function of janitor. For once in his life, Ed Nagel was free of the System.

Except for one thing. The System wouldn't let go.

Trying his best to drop out, Nagel learned that you can flee but not escape from a society intent on making sure everyone does things pretty much the same way. Luckily, Nagel turned and fought—and won. And won again. Organizing a network of legal talent from across the country, Nagel has repeatedly stood firm against harassment and denial of rights from local, state, and federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service. The organization he founded, the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools (NALSAS), has helped dozens of parents and nonpublic schools cope with—or strike down—government regulations and compulsory attendance laws.

The government made its first mistake in January 1971, when the state-level Department of Education denied accreditation to the Santa Fe Community School's secondary program. Parents were told they would be prosecuted for failing to have their children educated at an approved school. The school's shortcoming: it didn't provide teachers certified in the 30 courses required in public schools. "Since we only had two teachers and thirteen children in the entire school, that seemed pretty silly," Nagel points out.

Just the same, the state was serious, even though a number of New Mexico's rural public high schools failed to meet the 30-course standard. Nagel sought aid from several attorneys and foundations (including the Rockefeller Brothers Family Fund and the New Mexico ACLU). It paid off a year later when the State Supreme Court ruled that New Mexico's constitution delegates no authority to distinguish what type of school satisfies compulsory education requirements. The following year, publicity surrounding the case, and the lobbying efforts of a nonpublic school task force, persuaded the legislature to remove all state authority over nonpublic schools, including the requirement that teachers be certified.

But the state wouldn't rest. Because its enrollment included kindergarten-aged children, the Santa Fe Community School was under the jurisdiction of the State Health and Social Services Department. And because the school was known as a troublemaker, it experienced blatant harassment. During one six-month period, 20 government inspections were carried out.

"They came out and said they found 25 code violations that we'd have to correct. We fixed things, and the inspectors suddenly discovered 23 totally new items that didn't conform. They couldn't be satisfied," Nagel reports.

Examples of creative enforcement:

• When the Santa Fe school converted a one-story, ranch-style structure into a school building, the authorities cited the fire code's insistence on corridors six feet wide. "We offered to let the inspector hold a fire drill. He could lock any door, block any exit, anything he wanted, and we'd have the building cleared inside a minute," tells Nagel. "The inspector said that didn't matter, because we didn't meet code specifications. Then we went over to the state capitol and found dead-end corridors narrower than six feet, right there in the capitol where the stupid law was made. Finally we just knocked down a wall so there was no longer a corridor to worry about."

• One inspector cited the school because the children's faces and hands were dirty. Nagel asked him if the complaint was serious enough to close down the school; the reply was no. Later he brought up the same question with the inspector's supervisor. "The man looked at me with a scowl and said, 'Wash 'em.' He was dead serious."

The frivolous harassment halted suddenly when Nagel and fellow parents prepared a lengthy letter detailing the government's actions. The letter was mailed "to anyone we thought might respond, anywhere in the country." Sen. Joseph Montoya replied by calling in the responsible bureaucrats for a discussion, "and suddenly it turned out we had resolved all our differences. The agencies just stopped annoying us, even though we were doing most things the same as always."

The national pattern of pestering alternative schools was clearly established, however. Operators of small schools all over the country contacted the Santa Fe group to compare notes on legal tactics to avoid bothersome public officials. A regular exchange of correspondence developed.

In May 1973, while attending an Ohio conference of alternative educators, Nagel heard a speaker declare the need for a national clearinghouse of legal strategies for nonpublic schools. The idea "was to hold a later conference to develop a funding proposal and get the thing started once it was financed," Nagel says. "But my approach has always been that if you want to get something done, you do it. So I told them I'd start NALSAS on my own, run it until the conference raised some funds, and then turn it over to them. The funding never came through."

Nagel did come through, though, and just in time. While more traditional parochial schools and private academies are experiencing moderate growth rates, the interest in starting tiny—sometimes one-family—alternative schools is expanding rapidly. Parents are concluding that they themselves can prepare their offspring for life's challenges more effectively than the local school marm.

The decision to do it yourself, of course, is a tough one, but NALSAS was formed to make it easier. For $1.50, for example, NALSAS provides a sample copy of articles of incorporation and bylaws; an attorney starting from scratch might charge as much as $400 or more. Dozens of new schools have utilized the NALSAS kit, reports Nagel. Similarly, NALSAS brings together alternative school operators as allies, both by spreading the word (through a newsletter) about regional conferences and by simply introducing school operators to other persons in the area regions with the same goals.

For moral support, NALSAS distributes a book Nagel wrote to recount the legal harassment suffered by the Santa Fe Community School, entitled Cheez! Uncle Sam (available from SFCS Publications, Box 2241, Santa Fe, NM 87501).

Increasingly, the big chore is answering correspondence from schools seeking advice on solutions to regulatory problems and compulsory attendance charges. Almost 900 persons or organizations wrote in for help in 1978; at least 2,000 letters are expected by the end of 1979.

Like many antiestablishment organizations, NALSAS faced one of its roughest battles when the IRS denied tax-exempt status. After a two-year suit, NALSAS triumphed last October when the US Tax Court ruled in their behalf.

Although Nagel has yet to lose a court fight, he concedes that it is a possibility in a case pending in Santa Fe federal court against local public school officials. The $1.7 million damage suit is part of the Santa Fe Community School's long effort to obtain federal Title I monies, which are set aside for disadvantaged children in either public or private schools.

Several of the one dozen families (enrollment has increased to 24 pupils) at SFCS doubt the suit is worth Nagel's untiring efforts, even though their own incomes fall below the poverty line.

"To me, it's a pretty strong argument against a government program if the logical justification behind it is to help people most in need economically, and those same people don't want it after they see the red tape and strings attached," Nagel says.

The willingness to suck at the federal teat is natural to Nagel, who, after all, rejected public schools originally because of their perpetuation of conventional American lifestyles. Like many of his generation, he still feels a need to help poor people. On the other hand, his tangles with various government agencies have prompted a new economic understanding of public education.

"Now I see that the economic aspect is the really crucial issue. Before, I thought alternative schools were harassed because they didn't teach traditional subjects in the traditional manner," Nagel says. "But after comparing notes with parochial school people, who do teach according to traditional curricula, it really hit me that the government is only trying to defend its monopoly in education. Then I saw the political implications that protect the economic powers that run things and prevent diversity. I came full circle."

In fact, if Nagel had his way, no education taxes would be levied. "I'd just as soon have no public funds for any schools—let the parents pay for whatever education their kids get. But I realize that doesn't go over very well yet with most people." So Nagel finds himself in the quandary faced by many activists.

"The socialists have rejected me because I believe so strongly in individual liberty, but the libertarians are suspicious because I'm trying to obtain state funds to help poor people," he says. "It's a contradiction [seeking state funds], but to me it's one of the few options available to help poor people."

At the same time, Nagel is prepared to take on the government at any juncture. The rumor in Santa Fe is that the state education establishment is considering a push for new legislation to regulate nonpublic schools. Nagel is ready.

"No doubt about it, we'll fight them in the legislature," he says. "The people at the school have discussed it, and we'll do whatever is necessary to run our school the way we want to."