Commentary

The 'Paradox' of a Growing Federal Role In Private Education

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The existence of federal aid to private schools is perhaps most obvious in such programs as Titles 1 and 2 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 [now Chapters 1 and 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981], through which private schools are provided with financial resources and/or services. Less obvious, but perhaps more significant for its potential impact on educational philosophy, is the Administration's growing support for tuition tax credits and school prayer.

A recent and very tangible example of the federal government's increased interest in private education was the creation by the Carter Administration in 1978 of the position of deputy assistant secretary for private education in what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The new position was important for both symbolic and practical reasons--its incumbent was given direct access (which, in Washington, signifies influence and power) to HEW's top leadership.

Then, as now, the principal sources of public financial support for nonpublic schools are indirect aid through tax policies and direct financial support through fiscal policies and grant programs. Government tax policies significantly subsidize private education. More than 95 percent of nonpublic schools are exempt from local property taxes, a benefit that substantially reduces school operating costs. Many also receive tax-deductible contributions from individual and institutional supporters, greatly enhancing school revenues. Moreover, nonprofit private schools pay no income, use, or sales tax.

In addition to indirect support through tax policies, the government provides aid directly through budgetary expenditures. In the majority of these programs, which are designed to benefit specific student populations such as the economically disadvantaged and handicapped, services are provided by local education agencies. These publicly funded and publicly administered services, including pupil transportation, special education, secular textbooks, and funds for children from low-income families, are available to a relatively small number of nonpublic-school students. Since there is no actual transfer of funds to private schools, these services do not appear in the records of nonpublic schools.

It is important to note that the actual amount of public aid that goes to nonpublic schools cannot be estimated with confidence because of the difficulties of acquiring accurate and complete data. This is particularly true for the fundamentalist religious schools, which, according to various sources, are experiencing significant growth. However, in November 1983 when tuition tax-credit legislation was being considered in the Senate, the Education Department estimated that for the 1981 fiscal year, $608 million in funds from all federal agencies were directly expended on private elementary and secondary education. Indirect expenditures were not factored into this figure.

Federal education legislation has included nonpublic-school provisions since the passage of Title I of the ESEA With its passage, the Congress adopted the child-benefit approach to funding education, under which aid to public-school districts is distributed according to a formula based on the concentration of all school-age children from low-income families. Under the legislation, nonpublic-school students residing in eligible public-school districts may receive Chapter 1 services if they meet the criteria used by the local public schools to determine educational deprivation. It is expected that the Reagan Administration will propose a Chapter 1 amendment to authorize the use of vouchers, redeemable at any public or private school, to provide Chapter 1 assistance.

While Chapter 1 programs for the economically disadvantaged augment the instructional program of private-school students, the school lunch, breakfast, and milk programs are the largest noninstructional programs operating in private schools today. These programs, partially funded by the federal government and administered by federal and state agricultural agencies, distribute surplus agricultural commodities at subsidized rates to low-income students in both public and nonpublic schools. From an administrative perspective, these programs are unique: They provide public resources and control to nonpublic schools and pay those schools to administer the program.

The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) in 1975 greatly expanded the federal role in private institutions, making them eligible for even more federal funds. Under the act, state and local education agencies must ensure that all handicapped children in their jurisdiction--again, regardless of where they are enrolled--are identified, located, and evaluated at government expense. Moreover, the state or local government may choose to contract with private schools for the provision of services not available publicly.

In 1981, the enactment of Chapter 2 of the ECIA consolidated 29 federal education programs into one block-grant program. Chapter 2 increased the proportion of federal funds that must be allocated to private education but provided no assurance that the children and not the institutions would benefit.

Chapter 2 requires each community to provide services to private schools based on their share of school-age children. In 1984, private schools received nearly three times as much federal aid under Chapter 2 as they had under the separate categorical programs. That year, according to a recent survey, the average school district spent about 15.6 percent of its total Chapter 2 grant on services for private schools. During the previous school year, spending on private-school students reportedly constituted only about 5 percent of the funds received by the districts from the categorical programs that became part of the block grant. States with large emergency-school-aid districts (desegregated school districts), took the largest cut when the separate programs were consolidated--and a percentage of this greatly reduced amount must be used to serve children in private schools. In addition, local education agencies are burdened with the expense of administering the use of these funds for the nonpublic as well as the public schools.

Recently, legislation was enacted to begin a modest federal program to help remove asbestos from schools, and both private and public schools are eligible to compete for these scarce resources. This federal foray into private-school building maintenance leads one to wonder whether or not the federal government will eventually be obligated to maintain the structural as well as program needs of nonpublic institutions.

It seems clear from this brief review of both direct and indirect public aid for private schools that government support for nonpublic education is rather extensive--and continues to expand--even though the fundamental question of whether or not private schools should receive public funds at all is still a matter of widespread debate.

As interest increases in proposals to provide vouchers and tuition tax credits for education, government attention to private education is likely to accelerate. Some opponents of federal assistance to private schools argue that as this assistance grows, parents might be encouraged to take their children out of the public schools, thus diminishing parental commitment to and community support for public schools. School districts' financial situations would be further threatened as private schools join the list of competitors for public funds.

With a sympathetic President, strong supporters in the House and Senate, and increased federal interest in private education, tuition tax credits will raise important policy issues for the Congress and the country. Legislators need to be aware of the impact of such funding on public-school enrollment, financial support, equity, and related issues.

It is clear that, financially and philosophically, federal support for private education is growing. The essential policy issue remains as to whether or not the federal government should provide additional aid for a sector that is already a beneficiary of not only considerable political and philosophical support but also substantial fiscal resources. Notwithstanding its policy statements to the contrary, the paradox for this Administration lies in its ever-increasing support for education--private education.

Vol. 04, Issue 32, Page 20

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