Controls Would Come with Government Money
by J. H. Huebert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
October 22, 1999
As discontentment with government schools grows, tax-funded "school
choice" has emerged as the leading reform proposal. School-choice
programs typically include a voucher plan, although some would make
direct payments from the government to private schools. Those proposals
are intended to give parents new school alternatives, which are sorely
needed, particularly in inner cities. Yet private schools, by accepting
the money, would become much like the public schools against which they
are supposed to compete. Examples of government-sponsored school choice,
here and in other nations, show that when private schools sign on to
such programs, they often sign away their independence.
What has happened in American higher education provides strong evidence
that accepting government money leads to a loss of independence. In the
1950s and 1960s, both public and private colleges and universities began
accepting direct aid from the federal government. Nevertheless, it
caused alarm among many college presidents, prompting a commission
consisting of the presidents of some of the country's most prestigious
universities to declare that "the freedom of higher education would
Their concerns would prove to be legitimate, as Hillsdale College
President George Roche shows in his book, The Fall of the Ivory Tower.
As schools quickly became increasingly dependent on government money,
the feds began to exert an ever-increasing amount of control over the
Today, the dependence of schools on federal funds has become such that
formerly independent schools are willing to do nearly anything to
appease the government to retain their funding.
As federal control over public and private education expanded, so did
the very definition of a "recipient institution." In 1975, the
old Department of Health, Education and Welfare sent a letter to all
colleges and universities asking them to sign an "assurance of
compliance" that would guarantee they were complying with federal
regulations under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.
Although Title IX was only to apply to programs and activities directly
receiving aid, HEW now said the regulations could be applied to an
entire institution if even one part received federal aid.
The majority of schools simply signed the form and returned it. Most of
the scant few that saw the form as a threat to their independence did
nothing at all with it and hoped no one would notice. One school,
Hillsdale College, wrote to HEW refusing to sign because of the control
that would follow.
Eventually, the matter was litigated and ultimately appealed to the
Supreme Court in Grove City College v. Bell (1984). The court
ruled that a school could be considered a recipient institution if any
student on campus received an education loan or a grant, and that funds
could be withheld from school programs that were found to be not
compliant with regulations.
In another blow to private independent schools, Congress passed (over
President Ronald Reagan's veto) the Civil Rights Restoration Act of
1987, which made it explicit that any school (including any elementary
or secondary school) that enrolls students who receive federal aid is
subject to regulation by the federal government. Hillsdale and Grove
City were presented with a choice: They could accept government control
or they could accept only students who received no government aid.
Although it would give them a disadvantage in the market, both schools
chose the latter.
The story has been much the same in Europe, where government funding has
led to government control. The implications for U.S. primary and
secondary education under voucher programs are clear. Any school that
accepts a voucher would also almost certainly have to accept government
regulations and standards and thereby become more like the government's
own failing schools.
Clearly, if greater educational freedom, quality and diversity are
desired, government money and control are not the means to achieve them.
1999 J. H. Huebert