Policy Documents

August 2004: Three Objections to School Vouchers ... Answered

Joseph Bast –
August 1, 2004

The July issue of Chronicles magazine, published by the Rockford Institute, carries a review by Laurence Vance of two new books about school vouchers. Vance used the occasion to repeat some stale objections to school vouchers, reminding me that free-market thinkers still are not united in their support for vouchers.

Two New Books

The first book Vance reviews is John Merrifield’s School Choices: True and False, a courageous book by a careful student of the school voucher movement. As Vance says, Merrifield is critical of existing voucher programs that are crippled by regulations, vouchers too small to pay tuition at quality schools, and restrictions on which families and schools can participate. Merrifield fears these programs will fail and discredit the idea that there can be a superior alternative to the government school monopoly. He warns voucher advocates to distance themselves from crippled programs and advocate voucher programs that truly test the voucher concept.

The second book is Clint Bolick’s Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle over School Choice, which presents the history of the voucher movement as the story of concerned parents and public interest lawyers going to battle against the largest and most powerful special interest group in America: the government school establishment. It’s a colorful and inspiring story. More than that, it is a vitally important corrective to the histories being written by educrats in academia and government who seek to portray the voucher movement as ideologically reactionary, racist, and funded by commercial interests seeking to “corporatize” K-12 schooling.

Public Funding of Schools

Vance’s objections to these books arise from three reservations he has about vouchers: Vouchers still rely on taxes to pay for schooling, they may lead to more government regulations on private schools, and they may encourage greater dependence on government. Those objections are familiar to anyone who read The Freeman during the 1970s and 1980s, but times have changed, lessons have been learned, and the case for vouchers is more compelling now than it ever was.

Ending public funding of schools may be the proper objective, but it is a losing proposition politically. The government school establishment, financed by half-a-trillion dollars in taxes each year, diverts billions of dollars a year into defending its exclusive franchise. Real per-pupil spending by government schools is rising year after year, hardly a sign of waning power. Right or wrong, a large majority of the American public believes schools should be subsidized by taxpayers.

Vouchers are a promising tactic because they do not challenge this public consensus directly, focusing instead on whether a government monopoly is the right way to deliver the entitlement. Here, the public is on our side. They know private schools tend to be better than government schools, that government monopolies tend to be inefficient and unaccountable, and that religious liberty means government must keep its hands off religiously affiliated schools.

Leaving the entitlement to “free” public education in place while privatizing its delivery is popular with voters and even elected officials. It does not create a new entitlement--it only alters the way a current entitlement is delivered. Voucher plans can be designed to save taxpayers money by setting the voucher amount below current per-pupil spending by government schools. Allowing parents to deposit into Education Savings Accounts the difference between the value of the voucher and actual tuition would encourage schools to compete on price as well as quality, avoiding the threat of price inflation.

Defunding Government Schools

Every time a student uses a voucher to move from a government school to a private one, the budgets of government schools shrink. In this way, vouchers gradually defund government schools.

If vouchers were adopted by cities and states nationwide, millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars would move from the government to the private sector. The funds and personnel used to defend the public school monopoly would shrink while funds and personnel available to defend the autonomy of private schools would expand.

This is a critical point in the case for vouchers that critics fail to address. In order to end the open-ended entitlement to tax-financed schooling, we first need to weaken the interest groups defending it and strengthen or create new interest groups against it. Vouchers would do this. Nothing else we have tried has had this effect.

I have long argued* that voucher programs, once in place, are likely to lead to public support for narrowing the entitlement by lowering the amount to what is necessary to buy a basic education in a competitive marketplace (probably less than half of current government per-pupil spending), and restricting eligibility to those who cannot afford to pay tuition. School vouchers would become similar to welfare and food stamps, part of the social safety net rather than a middle-class entitlement program.

Avoiding Regulation

Vance’s second objection to vouchers, that vouchers may lead to more government regulation of private schools, is a red herring. States (and to a lesser degree cities) are free to regulate secular schools to their heart’s content; they don’t need the excuse of vouchers to exercise that authority.

No state in the country has a constitutional provision protecting the freedom of private schools from excessive regulation. Such provisions are missing because the secular private school sector in the U.S. is small and politically weak, and religious schools have as much protection as they apparently think they need under the U.S. Constitution. A voucher program, by dramatically expanding the private school marketplace, would change this dynamic in favor of more, not less, private school autonomy.

Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and other prominent libertarians support vouchers because that path toward privatizing schools is least likely to lead to more regulation. The old rhetoric about “he who pays the piper calls the tune” applies to contracting out, not to vouchers, which go to parents and not to schools.

Dependency on Government

Vance’s third objection, that vouchers may lead to more dependency on government, is a confused and confusing argument. Must we avoid doing anything that might improve or replace the government schools attended by 87 percent of all children for fear the parents of the remaining 13 percent would be tempted to withdraw their children from existing private schools or stop homeschooling? That is an odd position for a libertarian to take, because it means limiting the freedom of choice of the vast majority of parents and second-guessing parents who currently choose to keep their children out of government schools.

The dependency theory also confuses whose money is being talked about: It’s not the government’s money. How can it be wrong to offer parents/taxpayers some of their own tax dollars back in the form of a voucher (or tax credit, for that matter) for fear they wouldn’t spend it the “right” way?

Finally, the dependency theory misconstrues the motivation of parents. The financial sacrifice needed to pay tuition at a private school may motivate some parents to pay special attention to their children’s schools, but how important is this compared to love, compassion, religious faith, and the selfish desire to see one’s children be financially self-supporting as soon as possible? Probably pretty small. Against this small loss must be weighed the increase in motivation that choice and competition would bring about. Schools that compete for vouchers are more responsive to parents and more demanding on them than today’s government schools and more, perhaps, than today’s private schools that seldom compete with one another for the small market of wealthy and religiously motivated parents.

Stop Recycling Old Worries

The school voucher movement is one of the most successful efforts now underway to translate libertarian ideas into public policy. Libertarians and conservatives ought to be at the table helping design programs that protect school autonomy, narrow rather than enlarge the entitlement to taxpayer dollars, and protect the interests of homeschoolers and others who choose unconventional schools.

Recycling old worries and wishing for utopia won’t save a single child now trapped in a failing school.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute. His email address is jbast@heartland.org.

* Most recently in Chapter 11 of Education and Capitalism by Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast, published by the Hoover Press in 2003.