All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

State Subsidy to Private Schools: A Case History of Destruction

John Chodes is the Vice Chair of the Libertarian Party of New York City.

This is a story of how government aid entangles private schools in public policy and eventually leads to state control. It is especially pertinent today because many parents with children in public schools are lobbying state legislatures for help: tax credits, vouchers, or even direct subsidies to put their children into private schools. Parents hope that they can obtain government aid and still maintain control over their children’s education.

History shows that this is an illusion. State subsidies to private schools create legal conflicts that lead to their eventual takeover or destruction. The conflicts arise from inherent contradictions between parental values and public policy.

Our story begins in the 1790s in the slums of London. A young Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, was excluded from an education monopolized by the Church of England because of his religion. His father taught him at home. Embittered; Lancaster conceived a radical, cheap method for schooling the poor and disenfranchised such as himself. His “monitorial system” was so effective, it spread around the world.

Lancaster had the brighter children (the monitors) teach the slower, in order to cut costs. This also developed their leadership ability. There was one monitor for every ten students. Because of this small-group interaction, no one was bored, even though the subjects taught were more than the basics. They included algebra, trigonometry, and foreign languages.

Lancaster’s methods brought out students’ entrepreneurial spirit. They were paid to be monitors in “merit badges,” which were like Green Stamps, having considerable value when redeemed in bulk. Students purchased school goods and services with them, learning marketplace dynamics.

The system was profitable even with a tuition fee of only four shillings a year. Lancaster felt it was critically important that the students, no matter how poor, pay so as to strengthen their motivation to succeed.

Four shillings was a fraction of what it cost to operate church-run or private schools. Lancaster, however, had cut costs to the bone. Students wrote on slate instead of paper. Paper was expensive, slate indestructible. One book per subject per class was used. Each page was separated and placed on a board suspended over a circle of ten students. Each group studied that page as a lesson. Then the groups rotated. Lancaster even designed prefab school buildings that could be constructed in days.

The State’s Monopoly in Education

Since the Enlightenment, all governments, whether monarchies, democracies, or dictatorships, have considered education a legitimate arena for state monopoly. Values, the rules of citizenship, respect for authority, and homogenized cultural diversity were imperatives for stability.

Freedom lovers, on the other hand, saw the danger of extending despotism through this process. Also, church and private school systems perceived that state-funded education would undermine them, since their values often were at odds with government policy.

Due to these fears and the large taxpayer expense, government-financed schools advanced slowly in the United States. Then the Lancaster system attracted state attention because of its extreme economy. Taxpayers could accept its small burden.

The negative aspect for government was that Lancaster’s methods produced leaders. They were entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats. To the state, “good citizenship” meant restrictions on self-assertion.

In 1805 New York City was an isolated island of educational choice and freedom. It had many private and church schools. Some were free, some inexpensive. It had no state-funded common schools. It was surrounded by a government near-monopoly of education throughout the rest of the state, financed via the School Fund, which pressed for school uniformity throughout its domain. The city resisted.

There was an illiteracy problem in New York City associated with poverty. Children not affiliated with a religious or charitable organization often didn’t attend school. In April 1805 several prominent philanthropists met to discuss an educational plan to reach these youngsters. Benjamin Perkins had just returned from England where he had seen the Lancaster system in operation. He felt it was perfect for New York. The others agreed.

They incorporated under the title: “A Free School for the Education of Poor Children who do not Belong, or are not Provided by, any Religious Society.”

Its charter directed the Society for a Free School to seek private contributions. Unfortunately, this meant disregarding Joseph Lancaster’s original insights. Student payment and profitability were cast aside. This diffused the advantage of the marketplace and self-motivation. Charity became the philosophical basis.

Initially, contributions kept the Society free from political influence. In the first year enough money was raised to open a school and hire teachers. There was no thought of or need for a state subsidy.

The Influence of De Witt Clinton

The private nature of the Society for a Free School changed radically when De Witt Clinton was elected president and began to assert his influence. Clinton (1769-1828) was one of the most famous political figures of his day. He was a 10-term mayor of New York City and also served as the state’s governor. He promoted state intervention in education as an “indispensable foundation of democracy. . . . the first duty. . . and the surest evidence of good government is the encouragement of education . . . that will watch over the liberties and guard them against fraud, intrigue, corruption and violence.”

Clinton had heard of Lancaster’s early success and the low cost of his methods. When Benjamin Perkins went to England on business, it was Clinton who asked him to investigate how the Lancaster method worked in practice. Perkins’ report created the Society for a Free School along Lancasterian lines.

Clinton attached himself to the Society from the outset. The trustees were only too pleased to have him participate. His prestige made it easy to raise contributions.

Even though the Society had no need for government subsidy, Clinton approached the state legislature for assistance. With his political clout, the Society received state aid. The trustees believed his view that it was important to be in the good graces of the government.

The initial $4,000 grant toward building a school and $1,000 for expenses was less than had been raised privately. Yet even this small subsidy required changes in state tax policy. To pay for it, the levy on taverns and liquor was raised.

Then Clinton showed his true colors. In an 1807 speech at the opening of a second Society school, his views were diametrically opposed to the Society’s stress on student self-assertion and entrepreneurship. Clinton blamed the business ethic and wealth for moral depravity and poverty. He stated that schools should perform a social, not a personal function. Now that the state had a toehold, Clinton altered the Society’s position to be more like the government’s.

Subsidy Alters Ideals

Subsidy was never needed, but subsidy radically altered the fundamental stance of the Society for a Free School. State aid provoked a charter revision which extended the Society’s operations to “all children who should be the proper objects of gratuitous education.” Then the name was changed to the Free School Society. No longer were the poor and disenfranchised the targeted student group. The new aim was universality. This was the state’s position through its common schools, putting it on a collision course with both the common and the religious schools. The original charter’s careful wording (“. . . for the education of poor children who do not belong, or are not provided by, any religious society”) had avoided conflict with other systems.

The new charter meant another change: education was no longer important for employability and self-improvement. Now the Free School Society (F.S.S.) reflected the state policy of education to “enlighten” voting habits: “[What educational system] is best adopted to meet the wants of the state? In our country . . . the ballot box . . . a power, capricious and mighty . . . which rolls over the land with the tremendous pressure of an ocean swelling on and overbearing every obstacle . . . . such a power must be controlled and guarded or its exercise will be the destruction of everything dear to the citizen . . . .”

Secular vs. Nonsectarian

In 1813 the Free School Society accepted a portion of the state’s School Fund. This proved to be another crucial error, allowing New York State to extend its power into the city. This made the ES.S. more like a government agency, formalized by having the mayor, city recorder, and first judge of the city on its board of trustees.

Superficially, it seemed that the state and the F.S.S. were in agreement on curriculum policy. In fact, they were completely at odds. This disagreement, never reconciled, would finally bring down the Free School Society.

The School Fund was created to develop the state’s own common school system. Curriculum was mandated along secular lines. The F.S.S. taught its students a nonsectarian point of view. This difference generated the conflict of public versus private values in the legislature.

Common schools were compelled to exorcise any trace of religion or partiality in values from their curricula. Free School Society schools provided the basic moral tenets that all Christian sects could agree upon, but which favored no single denomination. (Religious schools that followed a specific doctrine were labelled “sectarian.”)

Both secular and nonsectarian schools tried to be universal. But the state legislature wondered: Can the Free School Society receive the School Fund with no legal objection, or is it simply another Christian sect? If the latter, then state aid would be unconstitutional.

No matter how the F.S.S. twisted to adjust its position to the state, it couldn’t be done. A major collision was inevitable. John Spencer, Secretary of State of New York, said the F.S.S.’s curriculum values would “endlessly be a source of irritation and complaint” to the legislature.

These explosive forces led to a confrontation from an unexpected source and resulted in a landmark legislative response, all stemming from the subsidy.

The Bethel Baptist Church ran a school for its parishioners. The trustees voted to build a second school on New York City’s Walker Street. The Free School Society eyed the site with the same intention. Bethel and the F.S.S. each feared that a rival school in the same district would diminish its own enrollment. Contrary to law, Bethel also received a portion of the School Fund. Both sides appealed to the state for help, thus turning a simple property dispute into a legislative battle.

Initially the Free School Society tried to get the legislature to revoke Bethel’s share of the School Fund by raising the issue of separation of church and state. Then the F.S.S. evoked the specter of religious intolerance, predicting that each sect would fight desperately over the remainder of the fund. “A spirit of rivalry [will] disturb the harmony of society [and put] prejudices in the minds of children,” the F.S.S. maintained.

All this helped the Free School Society win the baffle, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The city expro-priated Bethel’s school but, in the process of pleading its case, the F.S.S. brought into the open questions that the legislature used against it. For instance, there was the contradiction of taxes for a civil purpose (the School Fund) being controlled by a private organization. This generated a landmark amendment to the School Fund bill. The state gave New York City’s Common Council the power to administer the fund, bringing the common school secular curriculum into the city for the first time. The F.S.S.’s nonsectarian studies came under state attack.

In defending the expansion of secularism, a State Assembly report tried to show that secular-ism calmed the “dangerous passions” of religious rivalries. In fact, it drove many of the religious groups to humiliate their rivals as they fought for a share of the School Fund. State officials themselves fanned denominational hatred with comments like “ecclesiastical despotism is the most oppressive tyranny” to justify withholding monies from the sects.

Now the state was in a better tactical position to overpower objections to a common school monopoly. The coup de grace against educational pluralism was completed by a second battle against a religious school system.

Subsidies Lead to Strife

It was 1840. The F.S.S. (now renamed the Public School Society to show its universal character and association with government) ran 98 schools and taught 23,000 students annually.

The Catholics petitioned the Common Council for money from the School Fund. Their spokesman, Bishop Hughes, said his people could not send their children to P.S.S. schools, which excluded their form of Christianity. The Catholics wanted to create their own schools with the state’s help.

This put the Public School Society into a legal bind, due to its entanglement with the School Fund. Committed to universal education, it was forced to accommodate the Catholics or face losing the subsidy. The attempt at compromise with the Catholics created new turmoil with the state.

The P.S.S. tried to draw the Catholics into its system by expurgating blatantly anti-Catholic portions of its textbooks. Bishop Hughes was unimpressed. In arguing to the Common Council, Hughes presented the implications of secular schools that no one had stated-before: both the state and the P.S.S. were moving from a common education toward a common religion via secular-ism, which excluded Christianity but presented its own rational morality.

The issue became more exacerbated, but nothing was resolved. Bishop Hughes escalated the struggle by shifting the debate to the state legislature. He organized a political party to put forward candidates who would vote to give Catholics some of the School Fund. This failed but it drew Governor Seward and Secretary of State Spencer into the controversy. The gradual retreat by the Public School Society turned into a rout. All the charges that the Catholics hurled at the P.S.S. were now included in Spencer’s proposal for a new school bill. He attacked the P.S.S. as a closely held corporation where the taxpayers had no control over its administration. While this wasn’t true, the legislators believed it. Spencer detailed the endless conflicts between the secular and •nonsectarian views that would never be resolved until the state controlled all education.

Spencer mollified the Catholics by saying that in his plan,• voters in each school district would choose the moral values they wanted. But since the rules of the School Fund outlawed all religious teaching, politicians, not voters, had already determined the correct ethics.

In 1842 Spencer pushed a bill through the state legislature that enlarged the New York City common school system by creating two distinct branches: the secular schools and the P.S.S. schools. A new bureaucracy, the Board of Education, coordinated the two branches. Now state commissioners could inspect P.S.S. schools to see if any religion was being taught. If so, all funding would be withdrawn.

By 1847 the end was at hand. The Public School Society petitioned the Board of Education for money to build a new school. The petition was denied because nonsectarian doctrines would be taught in it. Only secular values were permissible. This was the kiss of death. The city immediately absorbed every P.S.S. school and hired all the trustees as state employees. The Public School Society, which over a 40-year period had taught more than 600,000 children in New York City, was gone. Pluralism and large-scale private education ceased to•exist in New York State.

If we ignore the tragic history of the Public School Society we will repeat it today. Current efforts tow in government aid to private schools via vouchers and tax credits will mean another cycle of legal conflict and restricted freedoms. []

1.   David Salmon, Joseph Lancaster (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1904), pp. 1-15.

2.   Joseph Lancaster, The Lancasterian System of Education, with Improvements (Baltimore: William Ogden Niles, 1821), p. 23.

3.   Joseph Lancaster, Outline of a Plan for Educating Ten Thousand Poor Children (London: Joseph Lancaster, 1806), pp. 8, 10-15.

4.   Lancaster, The Lancasterian System, pp. 1, 2, 17. See illustrations, pp. 30-31.

5.   William Olan Bourne, History of the Public School Society (New York: William Wood and Co., 1870), pp. xvii, 1-27.

6.   Edward A. Fitzpatrick, The Educational Views and Influences of De Witt Clinton (New York: Columbia University, 1911), pp. 47-49, 74.

7.   William Campbell, Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1849), pp. 316-20.

8.   Bourne, pp. 15-24.

9.   Ibid., p. 12.

10.   Ibid., p. xviii.

11.   Ibid., pp. 48-75.

12.   Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 20-21. See also Bourne, pp. 48-75.

13.   Bourne, p. 359.

14.   Ravitch, pp. 36-45.

15.   Bourne, pp. 32449.

16.   Ravitch, pp. 46.76.

17.   Bourne, pp. 521-25.

18.   Ibid., pp. 526-85, 592.