HARTFORD – Two people in 1956 stand together waiting for a bus. When the bus comes, one person is allowed on; the other is turned away.
Montgomery? Memphis? Little Rock?
Actually, it could have been in almost any part of the country. If it conjures images of racial segregation, imagine now that both people are white, or that both are black, or both Hispanic – even identical twins.
Imagine that one is a child headed to a public elementary school and the other is a child the same age headed to a Catholic school. The Catholic school student is the one who is not allowed on the bus.
Some rode, some didn’t
Before May 29, 1957, Connecticut’s Catholic school students – or any student at a private, nonprofit school – who wished to ride taxpayer-funded school buses relied on the generosity of their local communities. Of the 49 state towns with parochial schools, only 28 were already providing such transportation. Some towns provided it on a “space available” basis on buses used by public school students. Some towns let the Catholics ride as long as the buses didn’t deviate from established public school routes, meaning some students had to walk part of the way.
Today, equal access to transportation is taken for granted at both public and private schools. Some towns, such as Torrington, have buses carrying public and parochial students alike. Others, like Enfield, have separate bus routes for public and parochial school students because of differing school hours. Either way, no eligible student living a mile or more from school must walk or rely on rides from parents.
It wasn’t always so.
The 1957 Connecticut General Assembly session was dubbed “one of the dullest sessions on record” (The Hartford Courant, “Dull, Five-Month Session Of Legislature Now Over,” Keith Schonrock, June 9, 1957), except for a debate about a 6-cent gasoline tax and a heated discussion about whether public funds should pay for religious school students’ transportation.
“The school bus debate lasted five hours in the House and the vote tally which ended in a 133-133 tie provided one of the most dramatic moments in any legislative session,” the Courant article continued. House Speaker C. L. Brown II of Groton cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of Public Act 547 on May 29.
The bill originally sought to allow towns to provide health and safety services for students at non-public, nonprofit schools. An editorial in The Catholic Transcript on March 28, 1957, rebutted criticism that asserted it would be a dangerous precedent. “The fact is that in many places in Connecticut health services have for years been provided, at public expense, to children attending non-public non-profit schools. This has been the case in Hartford for decades. It is the case in all but a very small minority of the other cities in the state. It is the case in most of the towns where such schools exist,” the Transcript said.
When the bill finally came up for a vote in late May, it had been amended to include transportation services only. Still, it had its critics. Lt. Gov. Charles W. Jewett of Lyme claimed that it was an aid to nonpublic schools. He insisted that a school bus is an integral part of education and that providing bus services to nonpublic school students would, in effect, be subsidizing private education with public funds.
Catholic schools save money
But according to the Office of Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Catholic school education actually saves taxpaper money. Public school education today costs an average of $14,498 per child. With 29,796 students attending Catholic schools in the state of Connecticut last year, savings to the taxpayer amounted to $431,982,408.
Responding to Lt. Gov. Jewett during that 1957 debate, Senator Benjamin L. Barringer of New Milford argued that it was not right to have a “double standard for children on the side of the road.” Buses were taxpayer-funded; parents of private school children pay taxes; therefore, “everyone should get the service provided,” he said, according to a Transcript report published June 6, 1957.
The bill came up for a final vote in the House only after a heated, four-hour-and-25-minute debate, and members were stunned when it resulted in a 133-133 tie. House Speaker Brown immediately cast the deciding “yea” vote, and Governor Abraham A. Ribicoff signed it into law the same day.
But Public Act 547 did not automatically mandate universal bus transportation for all. It simply permitted each town to decide on its own whether to allow it. Petitions had to be signed; referenda had to be held. The issue dragged on for years.
Brian A. Giantonio, an attorney and board chair of the Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Schools (FACS), recalls attending St. Mary’s Catholic School in Newington a few years after the passage of the bill. He said his father, Guido Giantonio, drove him to school in the mornings. “After school, I had to walk a mile to the center of town to get on public transportation to then deliver me at a bus stop close to where I lived but not drop me off in any reasonable proximity adjacent to where my home was,” he said.
If he were going to the public middle school, he would have been bused both ways, he said. “The bus would have driven right by St. Mary’s School on its way to the middle school I would have attended. And that was the thing that got my father thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I’m driving my son here. The bus is going right by. It can turn into the parking lot and drop the students off from the same neighborhood that they’re taking students to Martin Kellogg, which is another mile and a half down the street.’”
In addition to the inconvenience, there was a safety issue. On his walk home, young Brian had to cross busy intersections.
After his father complained, the situation changed; young Brian Giantonio was allowed to ride the bus to and from school.
“I don’t remember a single bit of opposition. This changed quietly and without any ruckus whatsoever,” he said.
The law evolved over the years, most notably in 1971, when transportation was made mandatory if a majority of private school students lived in town. Today, Catholic and other private, nonprofit school students routinely wait for the bus alongside public school students. No student is turned away.