Does Government Funding = Government Control?

Published April 1, 2004

A major concern about public funding of school choice is government control of private schools. “Who pays the piper calls the tune,” the argument goes.

For example, in higher education, college students receiving assistance under the federal Basic Educational Opportunity Grants program (BEOG) subject the college to the provisions of Title IX, which bars sex discrimination by institutions receiving “federal financial assistance.” The U.S. Supreme Court so ruled in Grove City College v. Bell in 1984.

While Grove City is accepted by many as proof that government funding leads to government control, a different perspective was provided by the late William Bentley Ball, an expert on this subject who argued 10 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“[I]n enacting the BEOG program,” explained Ball, “[Congress] had expressly declared that a specific purpose of the BEOGs was in fact to ‘provide assistance to institutions of higher education.’ Further, the Court said that Congress had specifically intended Title IX requirements to be closely tied to the BEOG statute.”

Thus, the Court did not hold that government-funded student aid justifies government regulations, but said this particular form of aid was meant for institutions.

In fact, higher education is much less regulated than are the public schools, even though there is no constitutional or other restriction on implementing state controls. For example:

  • the curriculum is not mandated;
  • the faculty need not be certified;
  • there is no specified length of school year, such as 180 days; and,
  • there is no specified five-hour instructional day.

If government funding means government regulation, why aren’t mandates established in higher education similar to those in K-12 education?

It is because higher education is based on personal choice. The millions of full- or part-time college and university students are not assigned to the school they attend, nor are they required to remain there. If undergraduates find their institution of higher learning unsatisfactory for any reason, they may leave at any time, taking their money with them. Government controls are not needed to ensure colleges and universities are operating satisfactorily.

By contrast, government heavily regulates the public school system because most students are assigned to the schools they attend and have few opportunities to go elsewhere. When government spends billions of dollars on the system of K-12 schooling, it must regulate schools because citizens can’t.

These regulations would not be needed if parents could send their children–and their education funds–to a school of their choice, similar to the way higher education works.

Further, government regulation of schools is not dependent on the government providing funding. In its 1925 Pierce decision, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared, “The child is not the mere creature of the State,” and ruled that no child in this nation can be compelled to attend a public school.

However, in a less well-known part of the Pierce ruling, the Court said government can establish reasonable regulations for all schools and prohibit or abolish any schools that are harmful to the public interest. It is unlikely any government could or would permit anyone to do whatever they wish regarding their children’s education.

The form of government funding that would involve the least amount of government control already exists as the 60-year-old G.I. Bill. A similar student voucher program, in which schools are directly accountable to those they serve, would provide accountability that works and weaken, not strengthen, the need for government controls.

David W. Kirkpatrick is a Senior Education Fellow with the U.S. Freedom Foundation and also with the Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio. His email address is [email protected].