Parents digging through their children's backpacks are used to colored papers advertising a world of opportunities: soccer league, community theater, art class, day care. After a school board vote scheduled for Thursday, however, Montgomery County parents might find the offerings thinned.
Faced with legal issues surrounding an evangelical group's attempt to send home its ads, as well as complaints from some educators that distributing fliers is burdensome, Montgomery school officials have proposed changing the process altogether. Instead of allowing a wide range of community groups to use the schools to disseminate fliers in backpacks, the proposed policy revision would limit that opportunity to PTAs, government agencies, day-care programs operating on school grounds and the school system itself.
Materials from other organizations could be displayed at school on information tables, though not distributed -- an idea that has prompted a flood of letters to the school system from groups worried that they'll be shut out of a key advertising route and parents concerned that they'll miss out on activities for their children.
The proposed policy change, officials said, is in part an attempt to ease the burden on elementary schools, which must sort and distribute fliers in folders that also contain a child's homework and notes from the teacher to parents. It is also a way to avoid having to send home fliers from a Christian group that sued the school system last year for the right to do so.
In 2001, the Child Evangelism Fellowship sought permission to send home fliers at Clearspring Elementary in Damascus and Mill Creek Towne Elementary in Rockville, schools where it runs prayer-centered after-school programs for children. When the school system denied the request, citing the group's proselytizing nature, the Child Evangelism Fellowship sought an injunction on grounds of free speech so its fliers could be included.
U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Greenbelt rejected the group's request in 2003; last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, reversed that ruling, saying that having teachers send the fliers home does not violate the separation of church and state.
The school system filed an appeal July 14.
School systems vary in what they will send home with children, though most provide some sort of forum. In Fairfax County, deciding which fliers can be sent home "will not be based on the viewpoint of the eligible nonprofit organization" as long as materials "relate to the schools' primary focus, the education of children," according to School Board policy.
Montgomery County residents have sent about 500 letters and e-mails, more than school system officials ever remember receiving on other issues, opposing the flier policy change. Many e-mails were form letters disseminated by PTAs; about 150 were part of an organized effort by people tied to the Boy Scouts, which seeks members through take-home fliers.
Emily Correll, the school program coordinator for the Montgomery County Historical Society who has learned of many activities for her children from the fliers, wrote a letter in opposition. Her organization uses school fliers to advertise programs, exhibits, a summer history camp and other events and can't afford to send mass mailings, she said.
Correll said in an interview that if the fliers exclude nonprofit groups like hers, "my guess is that we would have many fewer participants. We would have to scale back to a certain extent."
For Paula R. Moore, who runs InterPLAY, a music performance nonprofit for the disabled, take-home fliers are a crucial way to reach students, particularly poor and immigrant children who might not be well-connected to community offerings. The proposal, Moore said, reflects "not really clear thinking about the majority of people who are going to suffer from it."
She added: "The steady stream of kids and adults who have to get this information just gets larger. To cut them out of the whole pie because some religious organizations get their noses put out of joint is crazy."
The proposed change is not certain to pass Thursday. Board of Education Vice President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), for one, said she is conflicted. She said she feels that getting the fliers sorted and distributed -- some schools use teams of parent volunteers to do this -- is a burden. But she is concerned that to limit the fliers to information tables would keep children out of worthwhile activities and doom small, worthwhile organizations.
"To say that fliers would just be placed on tables in the hallway and expect that elementary school kids would get them home, it's unrealistic," O'Neill said.