No public money for private schools

August 17, 1992

The idea of using public funds for private education is as old as the nation itself. In the late 1700s, Congress considered and then defeated a bill to pay for "teachers of the Christian religion." Through the 1800s and up to the present, advocates of parochial schools have lobbied for public grants and tuition tax credits, and have routinely been denied by the government.

Now the Bush administration has recycled this timeworn idea and grandly labeled it a "GI Bill for Children." The !administration's $500 million plan would provide $1,000 grants, or "vouchers," to families of up to four members and incomes up to $40,000. If a child goes to a public elementary or secondary school, his or her family would receive $500 and the school would get the other $500. If he or she chooses a private school, the entire grant would go to the school, even if it were sectarian.

The Bush proposal plan is rife with problems. Not the least of these is the unconstitutionality of handing public funds to private lower and high schools, the vast majority of which are run by religious groups and are more sectarian than religious colleges that get some government money.

No doubt the private schools would welcome the money, but they might not want the hassles that come with it. How would they react if the government tried to exert control over them, a possibility whenever public money is involved? And would the private schools be able to handle such a large influx of students from the public schools? The high quality of parochial schools, of which their backers rightly boast, could slide if class sizes boom, especially if the new students are of a lesser caliber that hinders the progress of their better-trained, better-motivated classmates. Then listen for the yelling from parents of the latter group of students.

To find the primary victims of this proposal, look no further than the students who would be left to hold down the fort at the nation's already troubled public schools. They could hardly escape being hurt by a plan that takes funding, students and dedicated parents from public schools and sends them to private schools.

Anyway, it's unlikely Congress or the courts would approve such a plan; last week, in fact, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected two Republican proposals to authorize public aid to private schools. The Bush administration, already faced with a $400 billion deficit, knows the costly "GI Bill for Children" has no chance of success. It is a cynical, campaign-season sop to voters sincerely anxious about the state of American education. An "education president" presumably would understand that hollow gestures will not remedy the sorry condition of our public schools.

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