Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pacific Legal Foundation on Education: We Need Choice, not More Money

New Jersey Star-Ledger guest columnists Joshua P. Thompson and Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation posted a good article titled Benefits of school choice extend far beyond disadvantaged students. Thompson and Miller note that the perpetual answer to public schools’ perpetual failings is “to throw money at public schools instead of looking for real answers.” More money, they observe, is a perpetual failure:

That’s why the grassroots school choice movement has taken off throughout the country. Parents know that money isn’t the answer -- they want the opportunity to select the school that best fits their child’s needs. We see the movement growing all over the country, including here in the Garden State.

As Thompson and Miller explain, “All kids learn differently, and the one-size-fits-all model is not realistic.” True enough. They therefore urge passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a program designed to offer parents of “disadvantaged” NJ kids a chance to choose “better school alternatives” for their kids. “Why should New Jersey’s best schools only be available to the wealthiest in our state? Why should kids be forced into schools that fail at educating them?”, they ask.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act has been languishing in the NJ legislature for years, even though Governor Chris Christie supports it. As Thompson and Miller explain:

Here’s how the program works: Corporations in New Jersey may take a 100 percent tax credit against their state corporate taxes for donations made to the scholarship fund. In turn, this money is turned into scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. Of course, the program is voluntary – parents retain the choice to apply for a scholarship or keep their child in the local public school. Moreover, it doesn’t impact the tax revenue of the state, because every child that accepts a scholarship is one less child the state has to pay for in the public education sphere.

While the program has merits, it also has serious drawbacks, which I discussed in my Objective Standard article Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits?. NJ’s scholarship act is a hybrid scheme: It’s tax credit-based, but the “scholarships” the credits fund are in effect vouchers controlled by the state. It’s also a very limited program.

But Thompson and Miller like it. And given the devastating consequences kids in the worst NJ schools are suffering today, it’s probably a step in the right direction, short term. Citing Christie’s annual State of the State address, they write:

“Christie urged the Legislature to pass the ‘Opportunity Scholarship Act,’ so that parents will have a meaningful role in the education of their children.”

I agree with Thompson and Miller in principle, and I can understand their support for school choice programs, like the OSA, wherever possible. But, to be sure, Thompson and Miller are not just about the OSA. They are for universal school choice:

Americans make choices every day, from which grocery store to patronize to which car they drive to which newspaper they read. Consequently, those businesses strive to attract and please their customers. Those choices should extend to New Jersey’s education system, so parents have the choice to pursue a quality education for their children, regardless of their financial circumstance. This week is School Choice Week, and as good a time as any for New Jersey to embrace this wonderful movement.

Every school choice proposal offers an opportunity to make the philosophical case for more educational freedom. School choicers must win the philosophical battle if we’re to have any chance to win the political battle. And we are winning the philosophical battle. It’s time to build on that momentum. School choice is not just about failing government schools, or how to fix them. It’s not just about poor parents or disadvantaged kids. It’s not just about the worst government schools. School choice is about educational freedom, and educational freedom is the right thing to do—for everyone.  I left these comments:

In his 2010 American Federation for Children Summit Keynote Address, [NJ] Governor [Chris] Christie went on record for universal school choice. He said the Opportunity Scholarship Act [OSA] would only be a "first step" that would lead to the day when "choice is available to every parent and every child... across the state of NJ."

Why wait? The OSA is a miniscule “pilot” program. The OSA school choicers are going to get beaten up by the establishment reactionaries no matter what. Why expend so much intellectual energy fighting these people over small fractional measures like OSA? Why not put our energy toward fighting for school choice for everyone?

I put forward a robust tax credit plan, published in The Objective Standard—Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits?—that would allow all taxpayers to sponsor the education of any child anywhere.

There is no “public money” of “public funds.” Every dollar spent on government schools comes out of the pockets of taxpayers who earned it. Government schools have no inherent claim on our money. Not only do all parents have a right to pick their child's school. Every taxpayer has a right to determine how his education dollars are spent. We should allow all taxpayers to apply tax credits—their own money—to the education of their own child; or to a grandchild, nephew, or friend’s child; or put it toward specialized scholarship funds for children of poor parents, active servicemen, the gifted, special needs, or other educational missions offered by entrepreneurial educators. Any taxpayer who does not exercise his choice option would still have his money go the public schools.

Liberating taxpayers to spend their own money according to their own judgement before it goes to the government schools is not a gift of public funds: It is an inalienable right. Defenders of the status quo are going to go ballistic over any school choice plan that offers children a path out of their coercive public school monopoly, no matter how limited the plan. They’re like reverse George Wallaces: They stand in front of the schoolhouse door, not to keep children out, but to keep children who would be better served elsewhere trapped inside. The government schools depend on force of compulsory education laws and taxation. Don’t the reactionaries have confidence that parents, if given the choice, would voluntarily send their children to government schools, and voluntarily pay for them? That’s what they’re afraid to find out.

This is not just a practical matter. It’s a moral imperative. It’s past time for partial measures. It’s time for universal school choice. It’s the right, and the American, thing to do.

Kudos to Joshua P. Thompson, Mark Miller, and the Pacific Legal Foundation for helping to lead the fight for parental school choice. It’s a path that leads to educational freedom.

Related Reading:

Education Tax Credits- Bridge to the Future

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