Freedom of Education

Recently there have been two items in the news which have to do with the subject of freedom of education. Because they have to do with this subject, they are also of interest to us who hold to the principle of parental education, that is, to the principle that it is both the right and the duty, or calling, of covenant parents to train up their children in the fear of the Lord. 

The first of these items has to do with a form of what has popularly been dubbed as parochiaid, that is, government financial assistance to nonpublic schools. As is well known, there have been various attempts to obtain such aid from time to time in some of the states, most of these attempts being initiated by a coalition of non-public schools. And in some of the states financial aid in one form or another has even been provided for a time, though sooner or later the laws were struck down by the courts. Against these attempts theStandard Bearer has repeatedly warned editorially, chiefly because of the undeniable danger that what the government pays for it also controls, so that parochiaid would inevitably imply loss of parental control of our schools. 

But now there is a new proposal in the air, and that, too, at the federal level. President Reagan recently announced that he is proposing to Congress a tuition tax credit proposal to help parents who send their children to private schools. The idea of a tax credit, it must be remembered, is different from a deduction. A tax credit is subtracted directly from whatever amount of income tax one owes. For example, if your total income tax is $1000—to pull a figure out of the air—and you receive a tax credit of $250, then the latter is subtracted from your total tax due, resulting in a net amount of $750. The details of the plan are not yet public. It has been suggested that the credit could begin at $250, and possibly rise to as much as $1000 per child over the years. It would be limited to elementary and secondary schools. Several senators and representatives have already expressed support for such a plan; in fact, two senators have already introduced legislation providing for a plan similar to the President’s. It is claimed that there are about 20,000 private schools in the nation, with an enrollment of some five million students, 10.7 percent of the total student population. It is evident, therefore, that legislation of this kind would have a considerable impact. 

What shall we say of the plan? 

From a certain point of view, it may be said that a plan of this kind is probably the least offensive form of parochiaid. In the first place, it does not involve a direct handout of government funds to the schools. This has frequently been a problem with some of the earlier forms, and has laid them open to the charge of the government supporting religious institutions and even churches. In the second place, a plan of this kind avoids one of the objections often raised by public school forces in the case of state aid programs, namely, that state and local tax monies are taken away from public schools (which are always crying for more funds) and given to private schools. In the third place, the financial benefit of the program goes to the parents, so that ostensibly the government could not interfere with the schools and their curricula. These are some of the positive aspects of the proposal. This does not mean, however, that public school forces will not oppose it; already some voices have been raised against it. Nor does it mean that we are endorsing the plan; it remains to be seen whether it will be acceptable. And, to my mind, this matter of acceptability centers chiefly on the question whether even this indirect aid will involve any degree of government control of our schools. 

We must be extremely careful in this respect. 

Already it is being said that the credit could be taken only for those schools determined by the Internal Revenue Service not to discriminate. 

This is precisely where the problem lies. 

Although the matter has not been finally resolved in the courts, as of this writing, the IRS has claimed broad powers in this respect. The case of Bob Jones University has been much in the news in this respect recently. This school has been accused by the IRS of discrimination and therefore denied tax exempt status. However, as we understand it, Bob Jones University claims its stand with regard to racial segregation or integration is not simply a matter of ordinary racial discrimination in the sociological sense of the word, but a matter of religious principle, based on Scripture. Now the question is not whether Bob Jones University’s allegedly religious position is correct or not. The question is rather whether the IRS can penalize a religious institution for its religious position. If the IRS can do this, then—in the abstract, at least—it could penalize a church, and deprive it of its tax exempt status, for sexual discrimination if that church did not allow women in office. And one could multiply possibilities, following this same line of reasoning. Eventually the United States Supreme Court is supposed to resolve this issue.

I mention this, however, only to point out that even under this new proposal there is the potential for government interference in our schools. Before we can accept such a proposal, therefore, careful investigation will have to be made. 

The second item having to do with freedom of education is the question whether private schools may properly be regulated by the state. Two parochial schools in Michigan are contesting Public Act 302 of 1921, a law which gives state Board of Education officials the power to regulate Christian schools. The reference is not to such matters as building codes and rules on sanitation and health, but to educational matters. Private schools in Michigan must submit annual reports to the state concerning various matters. For example, private schools must confirm to the state the fact that all their teachers are certified. Along with this, of course, goes the fact that the state determines what constitutes certification. The latter involves educational requirements for teachers. Most, if not all, states have similar laws and powers to regulate private schools. 

With the proliferation of private schools—many of them Christian and church-related schools—in recent years, there have been a good many court fights over the right of such schools to exist and over the question whether the state has the power to regulate them and even to regulate them out of existence. Some religious magazines, among them the Adventist magazine Liberty, have rather frequently carried reports about these cases. In the Michigan case, reported in theGrand Rapids Press, the attorney for the two schools battling the State of Michigan is William B. Ball, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who is rather well known for his handling—and winning—of such school cases.

According to the report in the Press, the two schools involved are parochial schools, that is, church owned and operated. One is the Bridgeport Baptist Academy, and the other is the Sheridan Road Christian School. The schools are reported to be claiming that the Michigan ‘law “infringes on their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and to freedom from government establishment of religion.” The pastor of the Bridgeport First Baptist Church is reported to have told the judge in the case, “Our Monday-through-Friday school is as much church as our Sunday school is. . . . Every course we teach is a religious course.” The report does state that only one of the school’s eight teachers is state certified. However, the pastor claims his school’s teachers : are more than qualified, and that he answers to a higher authority than the state. At the school the teachers must be “born-again” Christians and also have the “technical” qualities and familiarity with subjects to be able to teach. Apparently the court battle centers on the question whether the state has the authority to require reports and whether refusal to submit reports is “sufficient cause to suspend operation” of the schools. 

A couple of spokesmen of Grand Rapids area schools are quoted by the Press on the subject. Both said their schools are conforming to the state law. One expressed sympathy for the schools currently in court. Another spoke out in favor of the idea of certification. But both also qualified their agreement with the law, realizing that state regulation could conceivably go too far. 

Our own schools have over the years always adhered to state regulations and have required our teachers to be certified. 

I suppose that as long as the law functions somewhat innocuously, there is no problem for us. We certainly want qualified teachers in our schools; and while certification is no guarantee that a teacher is qualified (but only formally certified as such), nevertheless the requirement of certification is thus far not hard to live with. Besides, our schools, being parental, do not have precisely the same legal problems that a church-school would have. 

Nevertheless, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a state law of this kind could also become an instrument of persecution of our schools. The power to regulate is also ultimately the power to regulate out of existence. And when that power is in the hands of worldly persons, who have no sympathy for our Christian schools and who are very much influenced by the powerful, self-seeking, covetous teachers’ unions, it is not difficult to imagine that a law of this kind may some day be used to regulate our Christian schools in such a way that their existence becomes impossible. When that day comes, refusal to submit to such a law becomes mandatory! 

Let us be on our guard!