Monday, September 1, 2008

Education Tax Credits- Bridge to the Future

A correspondent to my recent post on the California homeschool court ruling submitted the following question:

I love the idea of homeschooling and very much admire those who do it. I would love to see these families get a pro rata share of public school funds that each family would be responsible for.

My question to you is how this could be implemented to ensure the funds were treated responsibly? Who would be determining proper use of the funds vs. irresponsible use?

First, I want to establish that I am not a proponent of home-schooling per se, but of a free market in education...i.e., of individual rights.

The short and only logical and just answer to the question above is…whoever earned the “funds” to begin with. The wording of the question, though, contains a philosophical booby trap for “school choice” advocates, which the author clearly is. There are three fundamental premises assumed as a given not to be questioned. Those implied premises, if accepted without question, signal a unilateral philosophical surrender to the public school establishment. The broader issues inherent in the question’s intellectual package deal must be exposed and refuted before I move on to the concrete subject of tax credits. The three basic premises are:

1. Your children and your earnings are “society’s (i.e., the state’s) property, from whose bureaucrat, committee, or board you must seek permission for one of the most basic and vital parental functions…the education of your children. (collectivism-or the group, rather than the individual, as the social standard of value)

2. You must make the education of other peoples’ children a higher priority than the education of your own (altruism, or putting others above self).

3. No child may receive a quality education unless all children can as well (egalitarianism, or the dumbing down of the entire student population to the level of the least intelligent student or most incompetent teacher).

Failure to confront and renounce these three assumptions repeatedly defeats “school choice” advocates with barely an intellectual shot fired. What starts out as a call for “choice,” ends up as an apologetic defense of government-run schooling.

Exposing the altruist-collectivist-egalitarian stealth premise in the above question is key to defeating any rights-violating government social program (and to not defeating oneself). As is made clear in my three education posts as well as this blog in general, every individual’s life is his own and an end in itself. His only proper moral purpose is to advance his own well-being and happiness, not to be “his brothers’ keeper.” Morally, his only social obligation is to respect the rights of others to do the same. In regards to education, this means that your right and responsibility to educate your own children with your own money according to your own rational judgement is absolute. Some other parents’ “irresponsibility” in regards to their children’s education is of no concern of yours, and vice-versa. They’re using their own money, as are you. They’re using their own knowledge and judgement, as are you. They have no right to impose their educational ideas or financial obligations on you, nor do you on them.

Of course, none of this precludes voluntary associations and assistance among parents who want to learn from and/or assist others in the education of their children. Indeed, a great deal can be gained by “networking” with others to gain and/or spread knowledge in regards to teaching methods, curriculum, text books, philosophy, cost, etc. In fact, the best thing you can do to advance the cause of education for others…for “society”…is to get your own children the best education possible, then make others aware of your approach. But to make this benevolent way possible, all parents must be free to act according to their own judgement…by right, not by permission. No one is under any moral or compulsory obligation to educate the children of others. The only valid and moral method for people to deal with each other is by voluntary consent to mutual advantage. This is true in all human endeavors, including education. For you, your own children come first, and that’s that. There is no conflict between your own self-interest and the self-interest of others, when the compulsion inherent in government-run schools is eliminated.

The proper question is, then-does the government (or society, or your neighbor) own your income? If you do not have the right to determine how your education dollars are spent, then who does? And why? Who determines what "responsible" or "irresponsible" or "proper use" means? If not you, then who? And why? Identifying and rejecting the altruist-collectivist-egalitarian premises underlying the correspondent’s question above (and of all similar questions concerning all issues) demolishes any possible answer to the why. The moral road is cleared for a proper defense of individual rights…in this case, your right as a parent to educate your own children as you see fit.

This, in turn, clears the way for a proper, practical illustration and defense of tax credits and, ultimately, an education free market. It is not enough, of course, to simply say “shut down the public schools.” A practical, workable plan to transition to free education is vital here. One must be for, not merely against, something. (By “free” I mean free in the political sense of having a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of action, not in the current Orwellian sense of “free” public education based upon compulsory taxation and compulsory attendance laws.)

Tax credits for education is an idea that has been around for decades. Milton Friedman is perhaps its most prominent voice. Shortly before his death, Mr. Friedman called for the outright abolition of the government-run public school system. Acknowledging the near-term unlikeliness of that happening, he simply called for a plan whereby the amount per student that government at all levels spends per year in a given state be simply turned over to the parents in the form of a voucher. In New Jersey, that figure averages $14,630, about 50% above the national average. And those figures don’t include taxpayer funding for public and private higher education. (I strongly oppose that plan, since it would preserve the government’s taxing power, and leave the government…through the vouchers it funds…in control of determining what is “responsible” and a “proper use” of those “public” funds.) Despite how long the idea has been around…and despite prominent voices like that of a Nobel laureate and the popularity (according to opinion polls) of the abstraction “school choice” enjoys…the idea has never gotten the traction it deserves. Without challenging the altruist-collectivist-egalitarian premise that every parent’s child has a “right” to an education paid for by someone else, the only proper basis for educational freedom…the moral concept of individual rights…can not be advanced.

How tax credits would work is (or should be) rather simple. The government would be required to give every taxpayer an accounting of the proportion of his taxes that goes for education at all levels. If you choose not to send your child to public school, you simply receive a credit against whatever amount of your tax…federal, state, and local…that equals your educational expenses up to the limit of your tax liability. In this way, there would be no re-distribution of income. Each would simply be spending his own money, before it gets sent to the government. There would be no restrictions on how you spend your own money…after all, it is your money…as long as it is education related. Credits would be allowed to pay down student loans for as long as it takes to repay them, even extending through years following the child's high school graduation. (Basic ground rules, such as not being able to spend money on a massage parlor, and then claim it as an educational expense, would have to be implemented. But there would be no government guidelines imposed as to textbooks, methods, standardized testing, etc.) I would extend this credit to all taxpayers, who would be able to apply it to the education of their grandchildren, their neighbor’s children, even to scholarship funds for children of low-income parents whose tax credits fall short of their needs, etc. The key here is that the same amount of money that now goes to fund public schools would still go towards education. No taxpayer would be obligated to use his credits, in which case for him nothing changes…his taxes still go to the public schools.

Capitalism’s history of enabling the production of more and more products at better and better quality at lower and lower real prices in all fields of economic endeavor is well documented, and needs no lengthy discussion here. It would be no different in regards to education. In a free education market, the best and most economical schools, curriculums, text books, educational theories and methods, and teachers would be determined by the market…i.e., by the rational judgements of the millions of parents seeking the best education for their children. The final arbiter, as in all areas of life, is the objective facts of reality. The results of each educational institution, from homeschooling to large campuses, will be readily observable. Since parents are free to “vote with their wallets,” schools that fail or do an inferior job of educating students will simply have to improve or lose customers. There is no education czar to arbitrarily impose his judgement on others. There is no impediment to dynamic new ideas constantly challenging the status quo. Entrepreneurial schools such as the VanDamme Academy in California would flourish in a free market.

I want to stress that I do not advocate tax credits as an alternative to or as a way of improving through competition the public schools. I do not fall into that trap. I advocate tax credits only as a transition to a completely privatized school system…a free market. The transition should last long enough to allow enough time for a vibrant and diverse private school system to develop. Some level of public education would need to be maintained as an interim measure to ensure a smooth transition. But the transition must be finite…say three years or five years hence…when a fixed date is set that all public schools would have to be either sold off, given to private groups, or shut down. Potential education investors and entrepreneurs would need the certainty of a definite end to taxpayer-supported public schools in order for a free market to flourish, for obvious reasons. This will give all parents ample time to plan for the eventual day when the responsibility for their children’s schooling falls on their shoulders, where it properly belongs. At that time, all taxation at all levels relating to public education would cease…there must be no windfall for the government.

The free market plan described above is a basic outline…and only an outline…to demonstrate the feasibility of attacking the very sacred cow of government-run public schools. Many legal questions, at all levels of government, would undoubtedly need to be untangled. Building support at the grassroots level is the first step toward reform. The growing frustration with the exploding costs and reigning mediocrity in so much of public education today makes the time ripe for a bold, radical new approach. Most people I have personally discussed the tax credit idea with have been surprisingly receptive, having never been exposed to the idea of an education free market. The greatest obstacle, of course, will be the entrenched establishment. Nevertheless, they can be disarmed and placed on the defensive from the opening shot. Paraphrasing Isabel Paterson:

The most vindictive resentment may be expected from the pedagogical profession for any suggestion that they be dislodged from their dictatorial position… Nevertheless, the question to put to any teacher [or apologist for the entrenched establishment] moved to such indignation is: Do you think nobody would willingly entrust his children to you or pay you for teaching them? Why do you have to extort your fees and collect your pupils by compulsion? (The God of the Machine, Caxton Printers, 1964 edition, p. 274, author’s emphasis)

I regard the rights of parents and their children to be extricated from compulsory government schooling to be on a par with the abolitionist movements of the 19th century and the civil rights movements of the mid-20th. The fight for free education is both a moral and a practical one. Moral, because parents possess unalienable rights to be free from coercion…and practical, because free markets work. There is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical. Government-run compulsory public education is immoral, impractical, and incompatible with a free society, and should be phased out and abolished.


Donna said...

Mike, thank you for your post and bringing my thoughts on free market education to another level. I like the detailed action plan and see the possibilities even though I think it is ultimately utopic and chaos would reign. All this is very timely with school starting this week. Education is at the forefront of my mind (actually, it always is but you know what I mean)! A quick first day of school story and then I will try to get to my point if the comments page is big enough! My public school teaching sister started school yesterday and a young elementary school child arrived in a taxi cab with a note from Mom. She didn't have time to register and all those pesky details and would they please lay out the funds (they did)to pay the driver and she would be by later to take care of business. Some may argue that she is teaching her child independence and coping skills. Some may even call the cost of the cab ride an educational expense..I call it bad parenting. How can a society that needs to remain competitive be "trusted" to do the right thing by our children when parenting like this exists. Creative accounting with what constitutes education expenses as people use their credits has the potential for massive abuse. Who will be the ultimate judge of what constitutes educational expense? I see the pubic education system being left in ruins with a system like this. Some children whose parents step up to the plate will be getting a superior education while others fall into the black hole of an underfunded public school system. Okay, I have a couple of more comments but will continue on later (baby is waking up)! Thanks again for putting so much thought into my questions...

Donna said...

Okay, all babies are still sleeping goes. I can understand why traditional school teachers would be defensive on the count that nobody would willingly send their children. I certainly would not want to send my child to a school that had radically cut funding. Generally, you get what you pay for. So, I guess all this makes me part of the establishment that would have to be broken down. By no means do I think the current school structure is perfect and I plan to educate my children in sort of a hybrid method. They will go to our public school system which I have many good things to say about too but is not the point right now. There are gaps (both spiritual and academic) that need to be filled by me and my husband. We will take on that responsibility and use some homeschooling methods and materials. The homeschooling network is growing and I have learned much from those who share. I guess my original question should have emphasized that I admire homeschoolers and any other alternative educators that do it well (yup, by my narcissistic standards)! and fear those who would abuse and make a mockery of a free market. I am going to look forward to your posts on all topics Mike..your blog is fantastic.

Mike Zemack said...


I have already answered much of what you say and ask here, and I do not want to repeat myself. I have rejected the altruist-collectivist-egalitarian premises underlying your line of thought. But since I do not take anything at face value, I must address the following questions arising from your comments.

What is “society”? Exactly how do “societies” compete? In what way are “societies” to be “trusted” or not “trusted”…and by whom? The framing of your references to society implies a mystical entity separate from and superior to the individuals who comprise it, and which is overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent ruler who “just knows” what “society” can or cannot be “trusted” with. This premise has been around since at least Plato and has been a source and justification for tyranny throughout history. The answer is that society, as such, does not exist. “Societies” do not compete. Only individuals, whether acting independently or in voluntary cooperation and association with others, can exist and compete. There are only individuals, each with his own body and mind, each of whom face the constant solitary choice, which boils down to…to think or not to think.

Put another way, to understand society, one must focus on the individual. Because that is all that there is. What is “society"? It is you. Want a better society for you and your children? Fight for the right to achieve a better life for you and your children. And it starts with the human mind and its proper training, which means education in its true meaning of not only acquiring knowledge but also the ability to think. There is no reason to “fear those who would abuse and make a mockery of a free market,” because you would be free to chart the course of your own children’s education with your own money and protected from the coercive interference of “those who would abuse” their freedom (which, in any case, are small in number, as Christine pointed out). There is plenty of reason to fear the government-run schools, which takes your money and uses it to impose its politically driven education agenda.

In a free society (America is currently semi-free), there can never be any czar or dictator (or board or department), armed with a taxpayer-supplied blank check, capable of imposing “quality education” by decree. There is no “society,” no tribe, in whose name some omnipotent ruler could impose his will by force. There are only individuals exercising their government-protected rights to think (or to choose not to), to act according to their own rational judgement (or to choose not to), to set their own long-term goals and strive to achieve them (or not), and to reap the rewards of their successes and take responsibility for their failures. This is not utopia. This is not chaos. This is called freedom. To refer to freedom, i.e., the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness…in such terms as “utopic” and “chaos” is to repudiate the United States of America and its Founding principles to the core.

In the absence of meaningful education reforms, your approach of getting the most out of your local public school and then supplementing and/or correcting its short-comings and flaws with your own efforts is a good one. I recommend studying Maria Montessori for early childhood education and Lisa VanDamme (founder of VanDamme Academy) for later grades. Both educators focus on not only content but more importantly the development of the child’s mental tools for knowledge acquisition, the hierarchy of knowledge and concepts, and the importance of understanding…all of which are mostly missing from modern educational theory and philosophy. Good luck.