Should public money rule private schools?

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seek to institute a federal school choice program, and they are looking for guidance to Indiana, which has the largest and most aggressive voucher program in the country. They’ll do themselves a favor if they study the pitfalls Indiana has encountered as well as the successes it has enjoyed.

The largest pitfall looming has to do with a private school’s continued ability to operate under its own philosophical tenets and its duty to adopt the norms and values of the public sector from which it accepts money. How much can it change and still be true to its mission? How much must it change as a condition of accepting public funding?

The Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington was founded in the early 1990s by a group of families who wanted an affordable Christian education for their children. It’s now an academically successful K-12 school serving 300 children. About half receive vouchers to help pay an annual tuition that ranges from $4,500 to $6,000 depending on a student’s grade. This year, Lighthouse received over $665,000 in state funds to enroll 152 students.

Lighthouse officials say they’ve never turned anyone away based on sexual orientation. But they could. A school brochure says the Bible does not allow homosexual, bisexual or “any form of sexual immorality” and if a student’s “home life” violates biblical rules, the school can deny admission or expel them.

And that runs counter to the current secular mandate to never discriminate against anyone for any reason.

Those arguing for LGBT nondiscrimination do have one problem. None of the 30 states that use public money for voucher programs prohibits discrimination against LGBT students. And the federal government, for all the posturing it has done on the issue, doesn’t, either.

But these private schools must still prevail in the court of public opinion if they want public funds. That public is used to the idea of money coming with strings attached. “He who has the gold makes the rules” is the golden rule of politics.

The big issue in voucher programs is whether they foster competition and improve public education. As big an issue, it is becoming clear, is whether the private schools can accept public money without also accepting the attendant demands that will destroy what they are and what they offer.