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The State Board of Regents has prodded public schools to improve the academic performance of their students, imposing more exacting standards across the state from the Niagara Frontier to the tip of Manhattan.

By 2003, with the exception of pupils in special-education programs, students must pass five Regents exams -- in English, math, science, global studies and U.S. history -- to earn a high school diploma.

But that requirement and others apply only to students in the state's 706 public school districts.

And that raises a particularly contentious question for private-school educators:

Should the same higher standards be applied to students in private, religious and other non-public schools as well?

Should the Regents require those attending Nichols or Park School, St. Joe's or Nardin Academy to pass the five Regents examinations in order to graduate, just as students in the public schools in Amherst and Buffalo, in Springville and Lockport soon must?

It is a profound question that collides with hallowed private-school traditions, legalities over separation of church and state, religious preferences, differences in measuring and monitoring student achievement and -- perhaps the most central question in the debate -- the degree of independence of non-public schools in New York.

Controversial or not, though, this question is one the Board of Regents has nudged onto its front burner. It is a question that the Regents, pushing for improved student performance and responsible under law for the education of all students in New York -- whether in public or non-public classrooms -- have begun to examine seriously. Indeed, the topic occupied much of their attention at a recent meeting with leaders of diverse non-public schools in Queens.

It's a good bet, too, that before this issue is resolved, it will ignite increasingly serious, and possibly heated, debate.

In the past, the Regents have mostly left non-public schools alone. Private schools can give tests required in public schools, and many do. But they are not required to.

The Regents also have the authority, however, to revoke any charters of non-public schools that they granted in the first place.

State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills, who taught in a non-public school years ago, expresses enormous respect for them and their enriching contributions to education in New York. He sees them as pressing diligently to raise their own standards, and he appears to be intent on avoiding an adversarial process as much as possible.

But, as he told The News, "Standards need to be the same in public and non-public schools."

How the Regents ought to ensure this, and how to fulfill their obligation without bruising the legitimate concerns of non-public schools, though, remains a prickly question.

"We truly don't know how this is going to be worked out," mills says. "We have to search for the right way to accomplish this, with a lot more conversation on both sides."

Mills, who has quietly conferred with many non-public school leaders over the past couple of years, is encouraging these conversations. Many educators hail the Regents' efforts to improve educational standards and student performance, but those running non-public schools often fiercely resist new state mandates for themselves.

Such mandates, as they see it, threaten their schools' independence and academic standards and achievements.

"We want to maintain our independence," says Richard C. Bryan, headmaster at Nichols.

"The issue for us is the challenge to our autonomy," echoes the Rev. Robert Bimonte, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Buffalo Diocese.

Catholic school officials support higher standards, but their participation with the state Education Department has always been voluntary. New state requirements for compliance issued by the Regents would, Brother Robert believes, "effectively change the relationship of non-public schools with the Regents and the commissioner of education."

"We are not opposed to compliance (with the higher standards)," he points out. "But we would want the compliance to continue to be on a voluntary basis."

"It's important to me that schools be allowed to be different," says Erik Korvne, head of the Park School of Buffalo, citing Park curriculums that go beyond those in public schools and an accountability to parents.

Resistance to further state encroachment appears to be solid among private-school educators, whether from secular, expensive private schools like Nichols and Park or religious schools like the Christian Charles Grandison Finney High School, established here in 1994.

Listen to Karen Swallow Prior, principal of Finney, who also opposes Regents mandates and believes that education thrives best in a free market.

"It is up to us to produce students that colleges will accept and take," she says. "If we don't do that, we go out of business. We have a better accountability than to Richard Mills. We are accountable to the parents of our students."

Mandates would pose troublesome curriculum problems for her school. "We do not believe in evolution," she says. "We teach evolution, but we teach why we oppose evolution, too, and why we favor creation science." That means Finney students would encounter problems in biology exams where the right answers supported evolution.

"Apart from the pure sciences," Ms. Swallow Prior insists, "ideology abounds in every subject -- and, therefore, in every test question."

One difficulty for the Regents is this: How to be sure non-public school students are performing at acceptable levels if the Regents cannot require tests of achievement comparable to those used in public schools?

Easy, says Headmaster Bryan of Nichols. Take a look at SAT scores, which among Nichols students average around 1,150 to 1,200 (out of a possible 1,600). Or look at the number of graduates admitted to college. Or check the scores of advance placement tests. Three-quarters of all Nichols students take these tests, Bryan says, with 80 percent doing well.

Some private schools like Nichols shape their own curriculums and don't teach Regents courses or offer Regents tests. Bryan and others believe their own curriculums are more demanding, more comprehensive, than the Regents. To teach Regents courses would, they believe, lower their own independent standards.

This may be true from some private schools, but for each and every one?

"It cannot be the case that all non-public schools are operating at higher standards than all public schools," says Commissioner Mills. As with public schools, "there's a range of quality in the non-public schools."

And how do you assure a good education for students in the non-publics that lag behind?

One Buffalonian who will be deciding, and not merely talking about, the issue is Robert M. Bennett. The president of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, Bennett is one of the 16 members of the state's policy-making Board of Regents who will get a vote on the matter.

The Regents are, he stresses approvingly, "trying to develop more public accountability for the non-public schools."

Non-public school leaders support the higher standards the Regents have installed for public schools, he points out. Many offer Regents exams to their students. Nonpublic schools get taxpayer support for textbooks and transportation. And many of these educators assert that their students already work at more demanding academic levels than those in public schools.

So, Bennett concludes, "It's a little befuddling to me why they don't want to report the results . . . since they like our new standards. I'd like to see them share their results."

Significantly, Bennett addresses another concern: "Nobody is going to threaten the independence or religious beliefs of these non-public institutions."

So where is all this headed?

"It is my hope," Mills said earlier this month, "that we can find a parallel accountability standard that matches the high standards adopted by the Regents."

Parallel accountability standard: What an engaging -- if not altogether clear -- phrase.

It's one Mills has not publicly defined further. It seems, however, to leave wiggle room for different possible steps in how academic accountability in non-public schools is determined.

Which raises another point of interest. Must this be a matter of either-or? Must all non-public schools be required to come under Regents rules? Or is there some middle ground to plow out there?

Perhaps non-public schools that met some agreed-upon performance standards could remain exempt from compliance with Regents mandates. Schools performing below that cut-off level would then have to adhere to the Regents mandates.

Perhaps that would establish the "parallel accountability standard" Mills is striving for. The goal is more crucial than how it is reached. As Mills has put it, "it is the results that count."

Meanwhile, amid all the uncertainties in this rising dialogue, a few certainties still stand out.

First, whether and how to apply Regents standards to non-public schools are critical matters that the Regents and Mills are examining very intently. Make no mistake, those schools are under the Regents' microscope.

Second, over and over again Mills and the Regents have demonstrated in their oversight of New York's 4,166 public schools an unflinching determination to raise educational standards. Education Week, a respected private national journal, recently ranked New York's educational standards tops among all 50 states.

Third, Mills and the Regents have shown no fear of change, controversial or not. They are impressively reformist. Nor do they dawdle once focused on a policy challenge.

The Regents have set no formal deadline for solutions to this one. Expect them, though, to be a lot closer to those solutions by year's end than they are now.

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