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Government 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 be lost."

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 recipient institutions.

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