Keep Private Schools Private — Even in a Hurricane

I submitted this article to the Investors Business Daily in response to this op-ed they published by Clint Bolick, calling for federal money for private schools. They apparently didn’t want you to read it — but now you can anyway.

In a recent article in these pages, Clint Bolick called on the federal government to pay for schoolchildren displaced by Katrina to attend private schools ("Kennedy Turns His Back on Katrina’s Kids," September 23).

This proposal, embraced by the Bush administration, is not only far from the kind of sound free-market ideas Mr. Bolick articulated in his days as a "libertarian litigator" with the Institute for Justice — it would also be antithetical to his laudable desire for more "school choice."

More government spending?

One is first shocked to see Mr. Bolick advocate more government spending on anything. We already have an out-of-control Congress and president. As a recent Cato Institute study by Stephen Slivinski documented, President Bush is the "biggest-spending president" since Lyndon Johnson — even if you adjust for inflation and exclude money spent on defense and homeland security.

Undaunted, Mr. Bolick argues that $1.9 billion is "a modest sum" compared to the total hurricane relief package of $200 billion.

That $1,900,000,000.00 is now a "modest sum" for new federal spending only shows just how far the country, and especially many of those who have been known for favoring the free market, has come in embracing big government. Just how many zeroes must be added to the end of a spending figure before limited government’s ostensible defenders, both in Congress and in newspaper columns, will draw the line?

To simply say "it’s an emergency" does not suffice to justify handing out billions.

President Grover Cleveland knew this, and refused on principle to sign a bill that would have given just $10,000 to Texas drought victims.

Why? Because the Constitution did not allow giving money for such things, and he believed Americans would do better to rely on "the friendliness and charity of our countrymen." He also prophetically added that "federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our National character."

Similarly, Davy Crockett, as a Congressman, famously declared he could not vote to give money to a naval officer’s widow because, though he had "as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living" as anyone, taxpayer money was simply was not his to give. He then offered to give a week of his own pay to help the widow, and urged his colleagues to do the same.

Who today will tell Congress that — no matter what disaster we may we may face — the money is just not theirs to give?

Mr. Bolick also argues that it is "discrimination" for the federal government to provide aid to some children (those who attend government schools) but not others (those at private schools). But of course this is an argument for unlimited government spending, because there will always be people who want government money and, due to some manner of discrimination, do not receive it.

Besides, is it really so invidious to "discriminate" against private schools when deciding how to spend government money? Isn’t lack of government money what makes a school private in the first place?

Keep private schools private

Indeed, there is considerable risk that giving government money — especially federal money — to private schools would fundamentally change their character, effectively killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Federal funding for college education, which began in the 1950s and 60s, has shown this to be so, as formerly independent private schools have demonstrated their willingness to do nearly anything to appease the government and retain their funding.

In the 1980s, when two private colleges, Grove City College and Hillsdale College, attempted to assert their independence, Congress passed (over President Ronald Reagan’s veto) the Civil Rights Restoration Act, to explicitly declare that any school (including any elementary or secondary school) that enrolls any student who receives federal aid is subject to federal regulation.

Grove City and Hillsdale — thanks to endowments and generous alumni — were able to escape government regulation by offering students wholly private aid. Almost all others, however, could not resist the lure of federal money.

Can we expect the majority of private primary and secondary schools to act any differently if, as Mr. Bolick wishes, Katrina opens the federal funding floodgates for them?

If, as we would expect, they wouldn’t turn down the money — and would thereby subject themselves to potential government control of their curricula, admissions, athletics, academic standards, and more — what then, precisely, is the point of having private schools at all?

"School choice" would undeniably help certain underprivileged children in the short term — especially Katrina victims. But a hurricane shouldn’t cause free-market adherents to abandon their principles any more than a drought caused Grover Cleveland to abandon his. And in the long run, federally funded "school choice" would prove to be no choice at all.