Historic Crossroads for Private Education: Boom or Bust?

July 6, 2020 Updated: July 14, 2020


This is part 15 in a series of articles examining education in the United States.

Private education in the United States is at a historic crossroads, and the outcome of the fight will have a profound impact on the future.

Leading advocates of expanding private options told The Epoch Times that a recent high-court ruling and various government “choice” programs such as tax credits could dramatically boost private-school enrollment.

“It’s the most important breakthrough for Christian education in over 150 years in this country,” said former Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who wrote the first tax-credit program in Arizona more than two decades ago.

However, it could “potentially leave a crack in the door” for government to try to take control, he said.

Indeed, if the United Nations and the education establishment in charge of U.S. government schools get their way, independent private schools may end up dead for all intents and purposes—with government funding ultimately leading to government control. Experts say that’s the plan.

What remains to be seen is who will come out on top.

Alongside homeschooling, private education dominated in America for centuries. In fact, until the mid-1800s, government-controlled education was practically unheard of in America or most of the world.

In the city of Philadelphia, historical records reveal that between 1740 and 1776, more than 125 private schoolmasters advertised their services, according to colonial-era historian and author Louis Booker Wright.

Their institutions taught everything from Latin and Greek to math, science, foreign languages, navigation, and business. Children typically arrived at school already able to read.

The vibrant free-market education system in the United States, combined with churches and parents, worked incredibly well, laying the foundation to create the freest and most prosperous nation in human history.

Children in the nation’s wide array of private academies and religious schools generally received an education that was drastically superior to what is offered today in public schools, as evidenced by the textbooks and tests from that era.

It was all done at a fraction of the cost, too.

Even poor children could receive a free or low-cost education from a dizzying array of charities, churches, scholarship programs, and more.

Then collectivists, humanists, and socialists used government to take over education, as recounted in previous articles in this series on the history of public education.

And it was all downhill from there.

The Rebirth of Private Schools

As government hijacked control over education beginning in the mid-1800s in Massachusetts under the leadership of collectivists such as Horace Mann, Protestant Christianity was still by far the dominant religion in the United States.

And so, on the surface, at least, the newly born public schools proliferating across the United States were nominally Protestant.

In fact, many Protestant Americans, alarmed by massive Catholic immigration, hoped to use public schools to assimilate the new arrivals into America. (Those Protestants, for the most part, remained blissfully unaware that humanists and socialists were making plans of their own to use the public schools not to uphold and promote Protestant Christianity, but to undermine it.)

By the 1900s, Catholics, anxious to protect their own faith and traditions, had created a vast network of thousands of “parochial” schools all across the United States outside of government control. There, students learned the Catholic religion under the tutelage of nuns and other church officials, subsidized by the Catholic Church.

Protestants and anti-Catholic forces sought to stop this spread, even passing state laws and state constitutional amendments seeking to quash the parochial schools, or at least deny them any public funding.

The proposed “Blaine Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution, which would have prohibited the use of tax money by states for “sectarian” (meaning Catholic) schools, was offered by Sen. James Blaine (R-Maine) in the mid-1870s. It failed to get through Congress.

However, most states eventually adopted some form of the “Blaine Amendment.” Those prohibited any direct or indirect support for religious (Catholic) schools until late last month, when the Supreme Court dealt the measures a major blow.

Unlike Catholics, Protestants were largely content to remain in government-controlled schools as long as prayers were offered and the Bible was read from time to time. By the early 20th century, Protestant Christians had largely abandoned private education, with a few notable exceptions.

However, by a series of gradual changes, government schools were quietly transformed from nominally Christ-centered institutions into humanist and collectivist outfits seeking to fundamentally transform society.

That was the plan all along, as outlined by John Dewey, the chief architect of America’s modern-day public-school system.

It wasn’t until the infamous Supreme Court rulings of 1962 and 1963 formally banned Bible reading and collective prayer that many Protestant churches and leaders recognized the urgent need to create their own schools once again.

It wasn’t always easy. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, for instance, the state of Nebraska tried to seize children whose parents insisted that they be educated at an independent Christian school. A number of parents even ended up in jail.

But the battle over the right to educate children at private expense, outside of government control, has largely been won—at least for now.

Today, estimates suggest there are well over 20,000 private religious schools in the United States, most of them Catholic or Protestant, along with some Jewish schools.

About 10 percent of American students are in private Christian schools, with around 3 percent being homeschooled, estimates suggest.

But those numbers could balloon, very soon.

New Resurgence of Private Education?

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that the state’s discrimination against religious schools in its tax-scholarship program was unconstitutional.

President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly expressed a desire to rescue children from “failing government schools,” was delighted with the decision.

“Today’s SCOTUS ruling is a historic win for families who want SCHOOL CHOICE NOW!” he said in a tweet, echoing comments by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “School Choice is a civil rights issue, and no parent should have to send their child to a failing school. I will continue to fight for School Choice and will always defend Religious Freedom!”

Franks, who has been at the center of this battle for more than 30 years, wrote the original tuition tax-credit legislation in Arizona that served as the model for similar programs implemented in over 15 other states so far, including the one in Montana at issue in Espinoza.

Those programs have helped to liberate more than half a million children from public schools, he said, with the potential for millions more in the years ahead.

In a phone interview with The Epoch Times, Franks said he believes the ruling will provide an unprecedented boost to private and Christian education. This should help large numbers of low-income families access a high-quality education in accordance with their values.

“I truly believe there is a brighter future for America’s children on the basis of this case,” he said, adding that it would be easy to underestimate the significance as well as the “dramatic and positive impact” this ruling will have.

“The whole future can be affected profoundly by who holds the reins of our children’s education.”

The goal, Franks said, is to allow religious and nonreligious people to control the education of their children, rather than leaving that power in the hands of government bureaucrats. That will lead to a much better education for everyone, he said.

“Only two people can ultimately make the decision about a child’s education—parents or bureaucrats,” he said. “Not to denigrate the education class, but sooner or later, you have to put the decision over the children either in the hands of those who don’t know the child, or in the hands of the people who love those children and would do absolutely anything for them—their parents.”

Among other benefits, Franks said the ruling would “dramatically expand private and religious education” in the states that have tax-credit programs such as those in Arizona and Montana.

He also said that, by allowing parents to keep their own money and choose other educational options, state governments would save huge amounts of money. In many states, private schools provide a superior education at half the cost, Franks said, citing Utah as one example.

“Just from a fiscal point of view, this is going to take the burden off taxpayers,” Franks said, adding that the additional competition would force public schools to improve as well.

Calling the Espinoza ruling “the most significant education reform we’ve had since before the Blaine amendments,” Franks said he didn’t know “anything that’s moved us this far in the right direction in the last 150 years.”

In short, the decision, combined with growing disgust over what’s being taught in public schools and the “coronavirus boost” being enjoyed by homeschooling, means nongovernment education may be ascendant once again—at least if the educational establishment is prevented from seizing control over private schools and home education, too. That’s a real risk.

Threat to Independence and Freedom

Franks, the architect of the tax-credit program, does have concerns about the prospect of increased government control. Asked about the possibility that government may seek to regulate schools benefiting from the tax-credit program, he acknowledged that it wasn’t out of the question.

“I believe some of the elements of this decision could potentially leave a crack in the door, and I share that concern very deeply,” he said.

While he also backs tax-funded vouchers for private schools because “they are a step in the direction away from total government control,” vouchers are “far from ideal, because they present the danger that tax dollars could change the essence of the schools.”

However, the former congressman was adamant that the Espinoza ruling and the tax-credit programs at issue were entirely different from vouchers or subsidies in several key ways.

“This is not an issue of whether public dollars can fund religious education,” he said. “These are not public dollars, and they never were, even though that is what the left wants people to believe.”

Instead, the tax-credit program simply allows parents and donors to keep some of their own money and avoid the “double burden” of paying for a private school while also having to spend the same amount or more to send a child to a public school.

“That is not fair,” he said.

“These are private dollars for a private scholarship for parents to choose a private school of their private choice, and it privately drives the left nuts.”

In some states with vouchers, where money goes from government to schools or families, government has come in to dictate to private schools. That has never happened so far under a tax-credit system, he said.

“With shekels come shackles,” Franks said. “That’s why I’m so adamantly convinced this is a better mechanism.”

He compared the tax-credit system for private schools to giving a tax-deductible contribution to a church.

“It would be a really dark road to go down to say that anything that affects what you owe on your taxes becomes public money,” Franks said, noting the implications for churches.

“Unless all of our money is government’s, then these contributions are not public money.

“I wish I could say every dollar I never got was an expense, but obviously it’s not,” he said, noting that even some major media outlets have misrepresented the nature of the debate and the ruling.

Still, Franks acknowledged that there are dangerous and serious efforts to hijack control of all education, including private schools.

“It’s important for people to recognize, that is absolutely the goal of the left—to take over Christian schools and make them just like public schools,” he said.

“That’s what the left, the NEA [National Education Association], and the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] all want. They do not want to lose control.

“We need to be eternally vigilant. There’s a great danger, and our children are the prize that goes to the winner of that debate.”

Already Happening

In many state-level voucher programs, where states use tax funds to support private and religious schools, government is already regulating and seeking to control the schools in question. The Supreme Court has also given its approval for such schemes.

Everything from hiring and admissions to curricula and standards is in the crosshairs. And critics warn that as “school-choice” schemes proliferate across the United States, private schools and homeschoolers will get hooked on government money and then, eventually, be forced to obey the government.

Think of the tax funding—vouchers, aid, subsidies, or whatever—as the cheese in the mousetrap. At first, the cheese looks free. But after the mouse grabs it, the trap closes, with catastrophic results.

Former senior education adviser Charlotte Iserbyt, who served at the Department of Education during the Reagan administration before blowing the whistle on what she saw there, warned that the Espinoza decision would lead to a government takeover of “the last remnants of homeschool, private and religious education for our children.”

“Any entity, including schools—public or private—that takes one penny of tax money for anything, including busing, desks, pictures on the wall, school lunch, textbooks—you name it—will be controlled and will have to conform to federal regulations,” she told The Epoch Times.

Iserbyt, who wrote the explosive book, “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America,” said that in the case of private schools, the control would eventually extend to curriculum and teacher training, too.

Citing a wide array of court cases, regulations, and statements by officials over the years, Iserbyt warned that government funding or support would be the death of independent education not controlled by government. And she has warned for decades that this is the plan of the education establishment.

In recent years, the war on private schools in the United States and worldwide has accelerated and is becoming obvious.

In New York, for instance, Jewish yeshiva schools, which enjoy some tax funding, are now being targeted by authorities for allegedly not providing enough “secular” education.

In Sweden, government used a “school choice” scheme to get all private and religious schools dependent on government. Then it forced them all to teach the government’s controversial curriculum while forbidding prayer or Bible reading during school hours. Homeschooling was banned, too.

At the global level, the United Nations “Human Rights Council,” which includes communist China and other murderous dictatorships, has been calling for greater government control over private schools, too.

In 2015, the council called on governments around the world to “fulfill the right to education” by, among other schemes, “putting in place a regulatory framework guided by international human rights obligations for education providers that establishes, inter alia, minimum norms and standards for the creation and operation of educational institutions.”

Separation of School and State

Ultimately, to protect educational liberty, some advocates are calling for a complete separation of school and state.

Lt. Col. E. Ray Moore, executive director of the Exodus Mandate, has been urging Christians to get out of the government-school system for decades.

Recently, the pioneer homeschooler praised the Supreme Court for protecting the ability of religious people to use the tax-credit program on the basis of religion.

However, he too warned about the prospect of the Espinoza ruling opening the door to future tax-funded voucher programs that would endanger the independence of private and Christian education.

“A complete separation of school and state is the safest position for private religious education,” he told The Epoch Times, saying the United States was facing an incredible opportunity to rekindle freedom in education.

In a phone interview with The Epoch Times, Liberty University law professor Jeffrey Tuomala also expressed concerns about the potential for government and regulation of private education.

In many cases, it’s already happening, he said—especially where vouchers or other direct aid is being offered by government.

However, when asked if the First Amendment was really intended to support secular public schools while banning religious ones, he opened up about his research into these crucial constitutional questions.

“The high court has never defined religion,” he said. “Yet it has made the difference between secular and religious fundamental.”

The question, then, is how one can know whether government has “established” a religion if the terms aren’t even defined.

In the 10 Commandments case involving Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, in which the judge placed a monument of the Decalogue in the judicial building, the federal courts rejected the definition offered by Moore that was enshrined by Virginia in 1776 under the leadership of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

The Virginia definition referred to religion as “the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it.”

The federal courts in the 10 Commandments case rejected that, and even said it would be “unwise, and even dangerous” to offer one definition of religion.

“You look at that and say that’s ridiculous,” Tuomala said. “But that’s the state that it’s in.”

In fact, the founders viewed schooling and education as a crucial part of “the duty which we owe to our Creator.”

And thus, “education falls within Madison’s definition, and therefore, the Constitution’s definition, of religion,” said Tuomala, who will elaborate on his views of this topic at the Christian Legal Society’s annual national conference.

“Basically, as I see it, the state is violating the establishment clause when it establishes schools—any schools—because they shape the minds of children,” he said.

“The state has no business telling people what to think. We’re a republic. We’re supposed to tell our officials what they’re supposed to think. It’s totally contrary to our system of government for the government to tell us what we’re supposed to do and think.”

The Way Forward

It appears clear at this point that private education and homeschooling are going to make up an increasingly significant portion of the educational landscape in the United States in the years ahead.

Advocates of educational liberty recognize this, just as do advocates of total government control.

For those who hope to preserve parental rights, religious liberty, educational freedom, and the independence of private schools and homeschools, there’s a major battle coming.

However, for the sake of America’s children—and the nation’s embattled constitutional republic—it’s a battle that liberty-minded Americans must fight with all their might.

The future of liberty and civilization is literally at stake.

Alex Newman is an award-winning international journalist, educator, author, and consultant who co-wrote the book “Crimes of the Educators: How Utopians Are Using Government Schools to Destroy America’s Children.” He also serves as the CEO of Liberty Sentinel Media and writes for diverse publications in the United States and abroad.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.