Our Schools and Government Subsidy (2), A Question of Justice or of Money?

In this discussion of what has been. nicknamed “parochiaid” I have intentionally phrased the subject as you find it above, “Our Schools and Government Subsidy.” By “our schools” I mean our parentally established and operated covenantal schools; and I have in mind especially our school societies, upon whom rests the privilege and responsibility of operating the schools, and with whom rests the obligation to take a responsible decision about any eventual government support, a decision based upon Scriptural and Reformed principles. To subsidize, whether at state or federal level, is to aid or promote a private enterprise with public money; and a subsidy is a government grant to assist a private enterprise which, obviously, is also deemed advantageous to the public. And my phrasing of the subject is designed to express that the decision ultimately rests with our schools, and that these must be prepared to express their attitude toward and acceptance or rejection of such subsidy. To assist in the latter is the purpose of these editorials. 

The Justice or Fairness Argument 

It is well known that one of the arguments adduced in support of the drive to obtain adherence for government support of non-public schools, both among the people and with our lawmakers, is that of justice, or fairness. In fact, with some this appeal to what is right and what is fair as far as the disbursement of tax money is concerned is virtually a slogan. In one form, it is an appeal to the “freedom” concept, so that this idea of freedom (which is supposed to be so thoroughly “American”) has even found its way into the name of an organization like “Citizens for Educational Freedom.” In another form, this argument embodies supposedly an ordinary sense of what is fair and equitable: accordingly, so it is argued, if we all pay taxes on an equal basis, we should all have an equitable return, a fair share, when government money is disbursed. 

Now no one will deny that some of these slogans and campaign arguments have a certain popular appeal, and even have an appearance of rightness. And especially in our day of emphasis upon such ideas as that of “equal rights” it is rather easy to be attracted-I would say “misled”—by these battle-cries. In fact, these very slogans are calculated to make the supporters of non-public schools feel that. they play the part of the persecuted, under-privileged, unfairly treated underdog. They are calculated to give the movement which is campaigning for government subsidy the image of a kind of holy crusade. 

Personally, I am always a bit skeptical about such claims, and especially about a movement which tries to have the public image of a holy crusade. And I believe that I have objective reasons for some healthy skepticism. In the first place, any movement of this kind is going to claim that it has right and justice on its side. You may depend on this. What else would one expect? Surely, no movement is going to advance its claims for this or that (especially in the political realm), and at the same time openly admit that those claims are contraryto right and justice and that the claims are made in spite of this fact. This would be political suicide! All of which means that before we allow ourselves to be stampeded into backing any such movement and accepting its claim that justice is on its side, we ought to take a calm, hard look at those claims and their alleged justice. In the second place, I am unfavorably impressed by the clamor and the pressure tactics and the “hard sell” of the entire movement. These, to my mind, do not belong to the image of a movement that is solidly based upon justice and righteousness, upon principle. Apart from anything else which may be wrong with that organization, a group like the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools is a pressuregroup. There has been campaign pressure applied to our legislators. Last year the schools were in some cases used to distribute literature to the parents urging them to exert pressure upon government officials,—not, mind you, the pressure of a simple and quiet appeal to justice and principle, but the pressure of a concerted letter campaign, the pressure of a pile of letters, the pressure of numbers. This year it has been publicly charged in the daily newspapers that the forces in favor of government subsidy have been organized into a well-organized and well-oiled political machine, with campaign strategy well-planned and even with the date of a victory celebration already set. Now all this does not leave the impression upon me of a genuinely holy crusade and of a .movement that is dedicated to principle and that rests its case purely upon justice. On the contrary, it leaves the impression that some people have learned well a lesson in worldly politics, have learned to “know the ropes” as far as political in-fighting and political maneuvers are concerned. They have learned the lesson that if you make enough noise and organize enough voters into a group and exert enough pressure, you might well succeed in gaining your goals by persuading legislators that it is politically expedient to listen to your demands. And when I observe these phenomena, then I am inclined to conclude that there is very little solid principle and real justice at the foundation of this movement and its claims. The claim of justice is belied by the clamor and the political pressure-tactics. It is an attempt to justify and furnish with a cloak of respectability that which is not really concerned about principle and about justice whatsoever. From a Christian point of view, if our claims are a matter of principle and justice, then we should quietly and firmly make our case and let justice and principle speak, let the outcome rest with God the Judge, and not imitate the world and its methods. 

It is considerations like those stated above which make me very reluctant to accept at face value the argument that government subsidy is a matter of justice and fairness. 

Nevertheless, because this argument has been raised in the past, and because it is still used and defended, I want to examine it as thoroughly as possible, in order that we may discover just how much justice and principle, if any, is involved. 

The argument which appeals to what is fair and just takes several forms. Let me mention some of the chief points which are made in this connection. 

1) Private school supporters as well as public school supporters are compelled to pay taxes on the same basis; therefore, if tax money is used for education, private school supporters are entitled to a fair share. Private schools, in the eyes of the government, should be on an equal footing with public schools. 

2) Since education is compulsory, and since private schools are legitimate educational institutions, therefore they should be financed by the government just as well as the public schools. 

3) Since private schools through their education contribute to the general public welfare (whatever that may be, HCH), therefore it, is legitimate and proper that they receive government subsidy. 

Perhaps there are other versions of this fairness argument, but these are the main ones; and the others will not be essentially different. I will overlook the fact that to these arguments is frequently added the attempted economic “squeeze play” to the effect that if private schools are not granted subsidy, there will be a drain of private school pupils to the public schools, and thus the public school costs (and therefore the taxes)will increase. This, surely, is not justice, but coercion. For the time being, I will also pass by the questionable concept of freedom which speaks of a pluralistic society and pluralistic education. Perhaps we can return to this item at a later occasion. Neither of these two items is germane to the justice argument as it deals with the preesent system of government financed public education in our country today. 

This is the argument made by the Legislative Study Committee in Michigan. They state (p. 4, RJLC):

The Committee finds that our non-public schools serve a very valid public purpose and make a real contribution to the general welfare. These schools not only serve as a very valuable resource in assisting young citizens to receive a secular education, but these schools also make a tremendous financial contribution to the general tax-paying public.