Does Government Funding = Government Strings?

Published December 1, 2007

A common argument against public funding of parental choice of K-12 education is the claim it would result in government regulations harmful to nongovernment schools.

Some fear such regulation would so burden independent schools as to put them out of business or make them virtually indistinguishable from public schools. This argument is too often used by, or effective with, those who might otherwise be among the strongest supporters of generally available publicly funded student grants. People who sing the song of excessive regulation tend to accept it as a given, but they rarely cite evidence to support their fears. In fact, government programs that provide aid to individuals, such as the various G.I. Bills, college grants at the state and federal level, food stamps, etc., are not heavily regulated.

It is institutional aid, not individual aid, that leads to government regulations, because institutions are not accountable to those they serve for the expenditures of the public funds they receive.

Constitutional Right

When funds are made available for individuals to make their own decisions, and the money goes with them if they move from one institution to another, meaningful accountability can occur. When funds go to institutions, such as the public schools, they may to some degree be held responsible for accounting for the money, but they are less often held to any meaningful standards as to the results.

Those who would support government-funded school choice programs were it not for their fear of regulations play into the hands of defenders of the status quo. Ironically, they also increase the degree of government controls because they force more students to attend or remain in the heavily regulated public schools.

The 1925 U.S. Supreme Court Pierce decision declared “[t]he child is not the mere creature of the State” and that school choice is a constitutional right. However, the Court also said, “No question is raised concerning the power of the state to reasonably regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise, and examine them, their teachers and pupils, to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers should be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.”

Fewer Regulations

The statement “that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare” offers a counterargument to the fear that funding students will lead to schools established by witches, the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, or the David Dukes of the nation, since the government clearly cannot only regulate such schools, it can prohibit them altogether.

Just two years after the Pierce decision, the Supreme Court demonstrated what it meant when it said the power to regulate must be reasonable. It invalidated a Hawaiian law setting teacher qualifications and textbook content and requiring teachers to pledge to “direct the mind and studies of pupils in such schools as will tend to make them good and loyal American citizens.”

While having all youngsters become “good and loyal American citizens” is a laudable goal, it is arrogant for legislatures to define what “good and loyal” means, to assume it won’t happen without their mandate, or to think they can bring it about by fiat.

That regulations tend to be inversely related to the number of those who can exercise choice is demonstrated by programs such as those mentioned earlier–such as the G.I. Bill–and by the fact that a state such as Pennsylvania, which has a significant share of its student population enrolled in nonpublic schools, has fewer school regulations than many states with a lower share of nonpublic school students.

Universal Choice

This was dramatically demonstrated in 1994 when U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) introduced legislation interpreted as meaning nonpublic schools would be required to hire only certified teachers. The result was such a storm of protest through the swamping of congressional offices with phone calls, mail, and email that when the House voted on the amendment the lone vote for it was Miller’s.

With public funding of student choice, everyone can decide whether to participate or not. Where such a program is blocked, no one has a choice. Why should those wanting no options be able to deny options to others?

David W. Kirkpatrick ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education at the U.S. Freedom Foundation.