DENVER — Despite a State of California report saying that the Los Angeles Unified School District wrongly withheld federal funding from Catholic schools that serve poor students, a judge has said the archdiocese still needs to make its case first through administrative action, not through a lawsuit.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Douglas Stern said April 20 that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ lawsuit against the public school district is “not ripe,” given that the dispute is still in an administrative process.

The public school district appealed the relevant California Department of Education decision to the U.S. Department of Education, and the appeal has been pending for more than eight months. The archdiocese had filed its lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court in December as a back-up plan and in anticipation that the federal government will rule in its favor but the school district will continue to refuse funds, Courthouse News reports.

Kevin Troy, the archdiocese’s attorney, argued in court that the archdiocese’s suit is similar to a case from a consortium of Jewish schools which had followed the administrative procedures and are still waiting for the school district to comply with the law.

Stern rejected the justification for advancing the case, saying, “You’re not entitled to a placeholder lawsuit.” He later issued a ruling that effectively blocked the lawsuit.

In remarks after the hearing, Troy said he disagreed with Stern’s interpretation of the law. He said he knew there was a risk the judge would disagree, Courthouse News reports.

Troy said there are signs that officials in the school district have animosity towards private schools.

“We have some indication that they called them ‘rich kids’,” he said. “They treat private schools as a threat to their money. They called it ‘a wolf at their door.'”

“We’re not talking about Harvard-Westlake here,” he said, mentioning the Los Angeles private school with a tuition of $44,500. “It’s not the district’s place to second-guess the way poor families spend their money.”

Title I mandates financial assistance to aid poorly performing students whether or not they attend public or private schools, the Los Angeles archdiocese’s news site Angelus News reports. The local public school district is responsible for making an “equitable” distribution of funds to private schools.

In September 2019 the archdiocese had filed a complaint against the school district, saying it wrongly blocked all but 17 of more than 100 previously eligible Catholic schools from federal Title I funds.

In June 2021, the California Department of Education issued a report saying that the public school district violated federal law in cutting assistance for the academically struggling students in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools. The state report said the school district’s actions were “egregious” and “totally unreasonable.” The report agreed that the school district abruptly changed the process for calculating funding, sometimes multiple times in one year, and then excluded every school whose paperwork it deemed inadequate.

The state department of education gave the school district 60 days to establish consultation with the archdiocese and to fix any errors in calculating student need.

Before 2019, the school district gave about 2 to 2.6% of Title I funds to private schools, a percentage which decreased to 0.5%. This was despite a Title I funding pool increase to $349 million over an average of $291 million before 2019.

The total amount shared with private schools fell from about $7.5 million to $1.7 million. Catholic schools reported receiving about $190,000, about 11% of the total for private schools.

The Department of Catholic Schools is the largest private school system in the Los Angeles area.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second-largest public school district in the U.S. However, the public school district has faced a downturn in enrollment and funding as a whole.

Archdiocesan officials had expressed surprise at the sudden change in Title I funding, saying that for decades the Church believed there was an effective partnership between private schools and the school district.

In December, Paul Escala, senior director and superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, told the California education news site EdSource that he is optimistic the new superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, would “reset the relationship with Catholic schools.” Escala said Carvalho’s time in Florida as superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools included working with non-public schools and with immigrant students.

The Second Vatican Council's 1965 declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis, said that parents "must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools."

"Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children."