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February 2002: The Year of School Vouchers

February 1, 2002

This year should mark a turning point in the decades-long battle to restore parental rights and a competitive education industry in the U.S.

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This year should mark a turning point in the decades-long battle to restore parental rights and a competitive education industry in the U.S. Unfortunately, some Doubting Thomases are likely to make the battle longer and more difficult than it otherwise would be.

Supreme Court

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Cleveland’s pilot school voucher program. That program gives tax-financed scholarships worth $2,250 to economically disadvantaged children, allowing them to attend private, religious, or suburban public schools.

The Court is widely expected to uphold Cleveland’s program, clearing away the few remaining doubts about the constitutionality of school vouchers. The Court could also rule that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment trumps state constitutional provisions that discriminate against religious schools—the so-called Blaine Amendments that seem to prohibit vouchers in many states.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of vouchers, according to leftist journalist Bill Berkowitz, “would dramatically change the education landscape. ... A pro-voucher decision will undoubtedly open the voucher floodgates. With the court and the administration in sync, the road to education reform looks like deja vu welfare reform all over again.”

We can only hope.

The Privatization Opportunity

Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise. Other major industries have moved from the government sector to the private sector in recent years, including airports, hospitals, ports and harbors, railroads, water works, and even (as Berkowitz noted) the administration of welfare programs. Privatization is so effective it typically costs a private firm half as much as the government to produce a product or service of similar (often superior) quality.

The way to privatize schooling is to give parents tax-financed scholarships, or vouchers, with which to pay tuition at the K-12 schools of their choice, whether government or private. Government would continue to finance schooling, while private businesses and not-for-profit organizations would compete for tuition in a competitive education industry.

Vouchers would allow parents to choose, without financial penalties, the schools their children attend. No other reform addresses so many of the causes of government school failure. Giving parents the right to choose the schools their children attend stimulates parental involvement in education, a proven way to improve student achievement. It also inspires competition among schools, which rewards those that satisfy parents, engage in responsible innovation, and are efficient. Competition penalizes failure.

Designing Solutions

Voucher systems can be designed to meet the needs and objections of the many stakeholders in the school reform debate. For example, by setting the voucher amount below current per-pupil spending, vouchers can provide tax relief for taxpayers who have grown weary of paying ever-higher amounts for a declining level of service. They can lead to greater equality of educational opportunity than the current system provides, while also preserving local control over how much is invested in the community’s schools.

School Choice can help resolve the debate over national standards, which has created a deep rift between business groups and many people with conservative religious views. Voucher schools can administer their choice of pre-approved student examinations and be required to report the results to parents and their communities. Participation in the voucher program would not be contingent on the outcomes of such tests.

Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will not longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization. Vouchers could remain to help the truly needy.

Doubting Thomases

Vouchers were advocated by classical liberals such as Adam Smith, Tom Paine, and Friedrich Hayek, and are endorsed today by libertarians such as Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams. Nevertheless, some conservatives and libertarians oppose school vouchers.

Some fear voucher programs would increase regulation of private schools. But unlike traditional government subsidies to producers, which do lead to more regulation, vouchers subsidize consumers. Schools compete to meet the demands of parents, not government officials. Vouchers used in other fields have not led to more regulations.

Voucher bills typically give private schools stronger legal standing to oppose new regulations than they now have. Voucher programs also can prevent the centralization of school certification, testing authority, and information distribution in a state agency, thereby weakening the bureaucratic interests that are causing federal and state regulation of schools to increase even in the absence of vouchers.

Some libertarians oppose vouchers because they don’t go far enough: Like other forms of privatization such as contracting out and franchising, vouchers privatize the production of a service but leave government responsible for providing it. Worse, they say, vouchers expand the existing entitlement by subsidizing parents who already choose private schools. But this argument, too, is flawed.

The complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now, and would put us on the path to further privatization.

Parents who choose private schools for their children are forced to pay twice for education, once for tuition at the private school and again through taxes for the government school they chose not to use. Vouchers relieve these families of one of those burdens by paying for tuition at the private school. Can it really be that relieving parents of an unjust financial burden amounts to creating a new entitlement?

Even purist libertarians believe in one entitlement, and that is to equal justice under the Rule of Law. School vouchers restore or make real the justice that all parents and taxpayers deserve as a matter of right. To oppose vouchers on the grounds they create a new entitlement suggests, nonsensically, that libertarians should oppose the retraction of all unjust taxes and regulatory burdens.

Some conservatives worry about the impact of a growing secular education marketplace on religious schools and homeschoolers. While we can respect their beliefs, the fate of individual schools or schools of a particular type ought to be of less concern than the rights of parents and the education of children. Schools, after, all, exist for the sake of children and not vice versa. Similarly, homeschooling is often undertaken only because schools of acceptable quality are not affordable. We shouldn’t confuse this means for its end.

The Battle Ahead

Four decades of hard work by thousands of activists, intellectuals, and elected officials is finally about to pay off. Opinion polls show majorities of voters (and supermajorities of parents and minorities) support vouchers. Voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Maine, and Vermont enroll a combined total of some 30,000 students each year, proving choice works. Prominent politicians from President Bush on down are on record as supporting vouchers.

The Doubting Thomases have picked a bad time to defect to the anti-reform side. Their false warnings of increased regulation and of the demise of religious schools are spread gleefully by teacher union leaders and their allies, as well as by some selfish religious leaders who fear having to compete with new secular schools.

This is a battle we should win, and in the long term I believe we will. But in the short term, there will be many defeats caused by teacher union opposition, and some due to “friendly fire” from the Doubting Thomases mentioned above. In next month’s Heartlander, I’ll discuss how advocates of tuition tax credits, in particular, need to decide whose side they are on.

Joseph L. Bast

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Joseph Bast is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy. @JosephLBast