Our Schools and Government Subsidy, A Word of Introduction

To discuss the subject of government subsidy of non-public schools hardly needs any justification today. In the realm of things educational, there is hardly an issue that is more in the news and more under discussion everywhere than this one. 

In the State of Michigan there are at least three proposals for some kind of state subsidy of non-public education, two of which are already before the legislature in some form, and one of which has been publicly proposed by an influential member of the State Board of Education but not yet formally introduced to the legislature. Every day the newspapers carry items about this subject and about various public meetings for discussion and debate of the issue. 

In other states the Christian school movement is not numerically as large as in Michigan; but in some of these the Roman Catholics claim a large number of students and are clamoring for financial help from the government. In Illinois, for example, this is the case. In that state the Roman Catholic schools presently enroll 20 per cent of all the state’s elementary and high school age children. In the City of Chicago the Roman Catholic schools enroll more than 35 per cent of the children of school age. The school system of the Archdiocese of Chicago is the nation’s fourth largest, exceeded in size only by the public school systems of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. According to a recent report in the Chicago Tribune, it is plagued by financial and personnel problems which, if unchecked, threaten to be fatal for half of its 515 schools within a decade. And recently the bishops of that state have bluntly stated that only the state could preserve the Catholic school system. 

And so it goes. Similar problems and proposals are arising in other states. Besides, the federal government is already deeply committed to aid non-public schools from the college level down; and it bids fair to become more deeply involved. 

Sooner or later parental Christian schools everywhere, including our own parent-controlled, covenantal schools, are likely to be faced by the necessity of giving a Yes or No answer to the offer of some kind of government subsidy. Or, in areas where the public school forces hold more complete sway numerically, and where government help may therefore not become a real option, Christian schools may find themselves the victims of a squeeze-play which threatens their very existence in a different way. This, I understand, is increasingly the situation in Iowa, where there is a move afoot to make it difficult for Christian schools to exist by exerting the pressures of various technical requirements. 

Hence, we must be ready! Our school boards must be ready to take the proper stand. But more than that, our societies and parents must be ready to make a proper decision. For this is not an issue that can be decided by any board all by itself, nor would I expect that any board would even want to bear the responsibility. Our schools belong to the parents and the parent-societies. And therefore we all must know what this is about, and must be able to make a well-founded decision. 

Moreover, we must be prepared to face this issue strictly on the basis of Christian and, more specifically, Reformed principles. It is not a pragmatic question of the half-plus-one, the majority, the “voice of the people.” It is only to be regretted that here in Michigan all kinds of pressure groups, both for and against state aid, are being formed,—in most cases utterly without regard to any real principles. Protestant and Roman Catholic and Lutheran and Jew, Christ and Belial, the world and the church seem to be able to form all kinds of alliances either to advance public education or to advance aid to non-public schools. And it is nothing less than appalling to behold the spectacle of those who are supposed to be Reformed leaders joining in these unprincipled movements and even trying to be heard as spokesmen. 

Nor is it a question of state or federal constitutions. For legislatures and courts this is indeed a question; and the constitutional provision of the “non-establishment of religion” is proving to be a knotty problem for proponents of school aid. However, it may very well be that in the future this problem will be either solved legislatively or resolved in favor of school aid by the courts of the land, which tend to be rather pragmatic any way in recent years. The legislative and judicial trend seems to be in this direction: But just because government subsidy may be declared constitutional does not make it permissible for us as Christians. While we abide by the constitution of the land, let us remember that we have a higher and controlling loyalty, that of the kingdom of God and its righteousness. 

Nor, surely, is it a question of money. This is what it has become in the public mind to a large extent,—a clamor for funds. It is precisely this aspect which is tempting many to join in the hue-and-cry for government subsidy. And because both the love of money and the littleness of faith with respect to the morrow so readily plague us as imperfect children of God, the danger is not small that we are blinded to the real issues by the dollar signs in our eyes. And we can be deceived by slogans about justice and about a “fair share” of the state’s coffers into which we pay our taxes, et cetera. I have written about this in the past; and I shall have more to say about it. But by all means, let us keep our Christian bearings, and not allow ourselves to be tempted by the lure of dollars into deciding our stand on this issue without regard to our Christian principles. Then we might better close our schools right now, rather than wait for them to die a slow death through lack of real commitment. 

No, for us this issue is one of principle. And it is on this basis alone that we must take our stand. If government subsidy is right, then we must not only wait for it to come and accept it when it is offered. Then we had better get on the band-wagon and work for it—always, of course, on the basis of principle. If it is wrong, then we may not, before God, accept it, even though the majority might succeed in making it available, as I expect they will. And let us remember: we are not accountable to men, nor to ourselves, but to our God, Who has charged us with the training of our children in the fear of His name. In this series of articles, therefore, I purpose to study the entire subject of government subsidy of non-public education, particularly with respect to our own Christian schools. There are principles involved here: principles of justice, principles of government, principles of education. And when I speak of principles, I mean principles which can only properly be spelled out from a Reformed point of view and on the basis of Scripture. In these articles, I shall also attempt to be factual and informative. I have been watching the various developments being reported and have been gathering information about the proposals in Michigan especially; and for the most part my discussion of any concrete proposals will be concerned with the situation in Michigan. But the problem and the principles involved will, I trust, be generally the same everywhere. 

Meanwhile, I invite you, the readers, to do two things. In the first place, send to me any information you can, especially from and about other states. Some have already done this; to them my thanks. In the second place, I welcome any questions which you may have on the subject, or any questions which my articles may occasion. I will do my best to answer them. 

The Proposal of the Joint Legislative Committee 

When what has been nicknamed Parochiaid failed to get through the legislature last year, a Joint Legislative Study Committee on Aid to Non-Public Schools was appointed “to conduct an in-depth study of the present status of non-public schools and, as a result of that study, to report its findings to the 1969 Legislative session.” (Report of the Joint Legislative Committee, p. 1; hereafter referred to as RJLC). This committee of 5 state senators and 5 state representatives investigated, conducted hearings, listened to supposed experts, and prepared a report and recommendations. Obviously the committee was from the outset bent on coming up with some kind of formula for state aid; at least their report never mentions the possibility of rejecting state aid altogether, but only reports on several possible courses of providing aid. And after narrowing down the possibilities to four, the committee recommends the fourth, which I here quote in full (RJLC, pp. 25-27):

Purchase of educational services with amount determined by a percentage of public school aid 

The committee carefully examined the following approach for consideration. Concepts of this legislative approach are as follows: 

1. State aid to non-public schools would be related to a percentage of the state aid formula for public schools. Funds would be paid out of the general fund for the purchase of secular educational services. 

2. Money would be appropriated to each Intermediate School District based upon a membership count of non-public school pupils on the fourth Friday after Labor Day. 

3. The amount of money should be based on the existing average net full-time membership allowance to public schools. The proponents recommended amount for 1969-70 would be 50% of that average allowance. In inner city target areas to be designated by the State Board of Education, the full average membership allowance should be granted for 1969-70 and every year thereafter. 

4. The Intermediate School District, establishing a separate account, would purchase under supervision of the State Board of Education, from boards of education, associations, or corporations operating non-public schools, legislatively specified educational services (such as guidance and counseling services, library and audio-visual services, and professional teacher services) for the benefit of pupils in membership. 

5. The Intermediate School District would pay professional persons (who would be required to be state certified or meet minimum state standards) rendering such services upon written certification by non-public school authority that such services had been provided. Such persons would not be considered employees of the Intermediate School District and would never receive all of their wages from the Intermediate District. Therefore, no money would be paid directly to the institution. 

6. No Intermediate Board of Education would purchase any educational services in courses of instruction in religion. 

7. In order to assure that the state was receiving appropriate services for state aid, the State Board of Education should annually test pupil achievement in courses of instruction purchased in order to determine the secular effect and whether the secular educational legislative purposes are being achieved. 8. The State Board should require audits (similar to those required of public school districts) of the financial and child accounting records of the nonpublic schools as they pertained to the purchase of services.

The Report goes on to comment on this proposal as follows, p. 27:

Such legislation can be carefully drafted in order to meet constitutional tests and to safeguard the interests of the state in the use of public funds. Administration by the State Board of Education through existing intermediate structure (the vast number of local school districts would make administration through such districts far more unwieldy and more costly), with no money going directly to non-public schools, would provide safeguards.

Yet the non-public schools of this state would be able to maintain their identity while continuing their contribution to the general welfare, to public education, and to the general tax-paying public. 

The Legislature could determine, through testing, whether or not this approach was meeting the secular legislative purpose.

Now I do not intend to criticize this proposal in any detail at this time. Let me merely point out some notable features: 

1) Inherent in the proposal is the religious-secular distinction in education which plagues all who try to find a way to provide state aid. 

2) This proposal rather deviously tries to avoid any form of direct state aid to non-public schools: 1)By making payments indirectly through the Intermediate School Districts. 2) By so-called “purchasing of educational services” rather than outright subsidy. 3)By attempting to stipulate that those whose services are purchased are nevertheless not employees of the Intermediate School District, though payment would go to the persons, not to their schools (a rather novel way of redefining the term employee!) 3) The State would already have its fingers into the internal affairs of the schools by testing pupil achievement in courses of instruction for which it pays and by requiring audits of the schools’ records. 

Finally, I wish to point out that the entire approach of this proposal is financial and utilitarian. The committee was concerned with but one thing: the financial problems of the non-public schools. And ultimately the motivation is the protection of the economic welfare of the state and of the public schools. This is evident throughout the report, but it is rather bluntly stated in the following section from the Summary (RJLC, p. 28):

We find that the existence of non-public schools provides the state with valuable education resources and results in vast financial savings annually to the general public. 

The non-public schools are faced with severe financial problems. This is evident by the enrollment loss of 46,000 students from non-public schools during the past four years due to fiscally induced closures and cutbacks. 

This transfer of students from the non-public sector to the public sector is already costing the taxpayers $30 million this year. At a time when our public schools are having financial problems of their own, the state cannot afford to lose any available educational resources. 

The financial problems of non-public schools are most severe in our metropolitan inner cities in the very areas where our public schools face the greatest problems. 

The Legislature should act on the principle that partial investment in non-public schools will prove to be more economical to the general tax-paying public than paying the full cost through state and local taxes of educating these children in public schools.

Other Proposals 

The proposal of the Joint Committee was to have been introduced in the Legislature during the first part of February. Meanwhile, other proposals have been made. 

One bill has already been introduced which provides for a tax exemption for those tax-payers who send their children to non-public schools. Not much is being said about this bill at present, the reason probably being that it will not provide adequate financial aid to non-public schools. Besides, it will have the effect of reducing the state’s income and its support of public schools at a time when the state is looking for more income to meet a higher budget. And while I doubt that this proposal has much chance of passage, there would still be the question whether this would be a no-strings-attached exemption with respect to the matter of religious-or-secular education. 

Still another proposal was aired by a member of the State Board of Education, a proposal which might be presented in modified form to the legislature. Apparently the proposal was deliberately made in order to restrict subsidy of non-public schools as much as possible. For its author, a. Dr. Augenstein, admitted that probably many of the state’s parochial schools would elect not to participate; and he rather frankly stated that “I do not feel public funds can be used for the indoctrination of specific values—whether they be mine or someone else’s.” This proposal involves issuance of a voucher to any student to pay for his education so long as the school he attends meets the following criteria: 1) Proper certification of all teachers and curriculum. 2) Selection of faculty on a nondiscriminatory basis. 3) Prohibition against imposing discipline upon the basis of creed. 4) Optional religious training and no religious symbols in the school. 5) Acceptance of all students up to a school’s capacity, no matter what their race or religion. Supporters of government aid, needless to say, have already expressed strenuous objections to this plan. 

Finally, I may briefly mention the suggestion of former Governor George Romney in his farewell address. I mention it not because it is considered a real option in Michigan, but because it was in a way more honest than diplomatic. The governor, who has somewhat of a reputation for foot-in-mouth disease, bluntly proposed that the non-public schools and the churches get completely out of the business of education in so-called secular subjects, and leave this education to the public school system. The church-related schools would then serve only to furnish direct religious instruction. 

I call this proposal honest, because it simply carries the distinction between religious and secular education,—a distinction which everyone has been making,—to its logical consequences. But you should have heard the cries of anguish, and even of outrage, arising from almost every quarter, especially from the proponents of state aid who have constantly been talking about the secular subjects taught in Christian schools. It was rather amusing how the governor put certain people on the spot! 

Next time, D.V., we shall begin to examine the issues at stake.