How Other Countries Subsidize Private Schools

Published October 1, 1999

A recent international study of government subsidies to religious and other private schools in 22 industrialized countries holds few lessons for policymakers here in the United States because of constitutional considerations and important differences between subsidies and vouchers, according to education policy experts.

While the study warns voucher supporters that increased government aid brings more government strings, no serious school choice proposal currently advocates the kind of direct government support of private schools that is common in most of the other countries studied.

The aim of the study, researched and written by freelance writer and consultant Nancy Kober for the Center for Education Policy, was to examine how private schools might change if they accepted government support. The subtitle of the study contains its conclusion: “Lessons from Other Countries about Private School Aid: Higher Funding for Public Schools Usually Means More Government Regulation.”

“The study did not make any distinction between vouchers and subsidies,” noted Pam Riley, an education policy analyst with the Pacific Research Institute, a free market think tank in San Francisco. Whereas subsidies are direct payments to private schools to cover the cost of such items as operations, teacher salaries, administrative expenses, and equipment, vouchers are direct payments to parents for the education of their children at private schools, including religious schools.

In the United States, that distinction makes a world of difference. While courts here have barred the direct payment of public funds to religious schools, they have generally ruled in favor of programs where tax dollars for education go to parents or children. Voucher programs consistently have been upheld as constitutional, so long as the programs do not primarily support religion, and do not create “excessive entanglement” between church and state.

“The First Amendment’s establishment clause is a double-purpose shield,” said Heartland Institute President Joseph L. Bast. “It’s a shield that protects taxpayers from having to pay for direct government support of religious schools, but it’s also a shield that protects religious schools from becoming excessively entangled by government regulations.”

The Center for Education Policy report reviews the literature available on government funding and regulation of private and religious elementary and secondary schools in nations around the world, including Australia, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Kober concluded “that when private schools accept significant levels of public funding, they usually must comply with a rather high degree of government regulation.”

But onerous regulations are not merely a consequence of increased government aid to private schools. For example, private schools in Italy and Greece only rarely receive government support, yet they are still highly regulated and controlled.

Even without government funding, private schools in Greece must be approved by the government, follow the same curricula, syllabi, and school year as public schools, and use the same textbooks. They also must comply with government policies for enrollment, tests, grades, discipline, and class promotion. Tuition increases are regulated by the government, as are teacher pay and work hours.

Also, some countries make no distinction between public and private or religious schools, a situation for which there is no parallel in the United States. In Ireland, for example, most state schools are administered by the Catholic church or an independent board, but they are funded partly or completely by the government. In the United Kingdom, some schools are overseen by the Church of England and receive government support, while other “independent” schools receive no support.

A copy of the study is available from the Center for Education Policy’s Web site at