The Drain Refrain: A Challenge for Private Education

Published May 1, 2000

These are exciting times for private education.

It’s difficult to turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without seeing a story about the success of private schools. It seems the media and the public have come to discover what those of us in private education have known all along: that the disciplined environment, core curriculum, caring communities, and high expectations provided by private schools make them some of the most effective schools in the country.

At the same time, though, these are troubling times for private education.

As support for school choice increases, those who don’t like that development tend to take the offensive. Whenever a proposal comes along to help parents with the costs of education in a private elementary or secondary school, we hear–sometimes from surprisingly high places–the “drain refrain.” That’s the charge that every nickel of assistance to children in private schools is, of necessity, a nickel less for children in public schools.

Whether it’s vouchers, textbook aid, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts, you name it–they’re all treated the same way by some defenders of public education. Their standard operating procedure is to pit students in public schools against those in private schools by depicting any aid to the latter as a direct drain on aid to the former.

Often the drain refrain is invoked in laughably illogical ways. The recent debate in Congress over education savings accounts provides a prime example. Here was a proposal to allow existing college-only savings accounts to be used for elementary and secondary education expenses. Parents would put their own money–after taxes–in special savings accounts to cover the costs associated with their child’s education, and the government would not tax the interest earned in those accounts. Not a single student in a public school would receive a penny less in government aid as a result of this initiative, yet opponents regularly claimed the proposal would rob revenue from public education.

Now it must be that those who chant the drain refrain believe public schools have an exclusive claim on all tax revenue. How else to explain their claim that a general revenue loss penalizes public education, instead of, say, national defense? The untenable theory that underlies their rhetoric is that all monies not collected as taxes must necessarily deplete a revenue pool earmarked for public schools. But if indeed that is their belief, why do they apply the drain refrain so selectively?

Why, for example, don’t they describe the general revenue loss from college savings accounts or childcare tax credits or any of a hundred other tax breaks as siphoning off resources from public schools? For that matter, why do they stop on the revenue side of the budget? Using their logic, spending for housing, health care, and welfare also should be viewed as a diversion of funds from public education.

Opponents of school choice stigmatize help for youngsters in private schools by describing it alone–among all government expenditures and tax reductions–as a robber of revenue for public schools.

One reason the drain refrain is the mantra of school choice opponents is that it is an effective sound bite. Even empty charges can seem true when repeated often enough. But this particular empty charge carries an added political advantage: it stirs up self interest and group solidarity among public school parents. It fans fears that the education of their own children may be harmed by providing even minimal benefits to parents of children in nonpublic schools.

Is public education a bedrock institution in America? Of course it is. Is it deserving of substantial tax support? Absolutely. But to depict aid to children in one type of school as siphoning aid from similar students in another is to drive a wedge between two segments of American education. It fosters rivalry and divisiveness where there should be solidarity and a shared aim of improving education for all children.

Sadly, the practice is akin to the group warfare waged during the 19th century, when the Know Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan successfully played Protestants against Catholics to deny educational resources to schools they did not like. It was the politics of division then, and it is the same thing now.

The drain refrain is a slippery slope, where one set of alleged rivalries can lead to others. Why not charge that programs for higher education drain dollars from elementary and secondary education; that state spending for suburban schools siphons funds for urban schools; or that special education funds mean less support for regular classes? The potential battles between groups vying for resources are endless.

In the end, the drain refrain should be roundly rejected. It represents the rhetoric of rivalry and the practice of exclusion.

We need to treat the nation’s children more like family. Can you imagine a mother continually reminding her children that whenever she does something for one of them — buys a pair of sneakers, a basketball, or school supplies — it’s less she can do for the others? We would rightly be appalled by such behavior, because good parents don’t pit their children against one another. They find the love and the resources to meet all family needs.

America should be big enough and generous enough and loving enough to extend a hand to all her students. Children in private schools are part of the family too.

Joe McTighe is executive director of the Council for American Private Education in Germantown, Maryland. CAPE’s Web site is at