Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Voucher Trojan Horse

The universal pre-school movement and Obama’s federal takeover of all student loans are two overt attempts to extend the government’s education control to the pre-school sector and to higher education, respectively. But the education monopolists are also on the move covertly, under the banner of “parental school choice”. The target is the private K-12 school sector. The means: state-funded vouchers.

Republicans and conservatives are driving the voucher bandwagon in the belief that they are breaking the public school stranglehold. They are making a monumental miscalculation.

Educational freedom means only one thing – no government interference. Put another way, it means the separation of school and state. Government-funded vouchers don’t remove government interference. They reorient and expand that interference, while sailing under the banner of free markets. This is a crucial point to understand. The issue of educational freedom is not a question of which type of government-run education to embrace, but of choosing between government control and no government control. New Jersey is emerging as a major front in the civil rights battle for freedom of education in America.

NJ’s Republican Governor Chris Christie has come out strongly in favor of state-funded vouchers for poor children in “failing” public school districts. That’s only for starters, though. The Record's Washington correspondent Herb Jackson writes of Christie's plans at

“A voucher system that lets any child in New Jersey go to any school, public or private, is the ‘final solution’ to an overly expensive system that continues to fail too many children, Governor Christie said Monday.” (Emphasis added.)

The only silver lining I can see in this plan is that it establishes the principle that parents should choose their children’s school, rather than some government bureaucrat who simply looks at the parents’ address. Once that occurs, we will never go back to the assembly line-like system we have now. That would be a good thing, and at least a small foundation of freedom to build on. Christie’s universal state-funded voucher plan would be better than what we have now, as it would at least embed a measure of quasi-competition within the government-controlled school network. But make no mistake. Vouchers are a bad idea. The Alliance for the Separation of School and State puts it well:

"By creating a flow of money from the state to private schools, vouchers pave a wide road for additional regulations and controls. 'When you reach for the money is when they slip on the handcuffs.'

"A common control is to require voucher-redeeming schools to administer standardized tests [which is included in NJ’s proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act]. These tests, in effect, dictate the curriculum, as the private schools do not wish to have lower test scores than the public schools.

"The net result of these flaws is that if vouchers become commonplace, private and religious schools will become more and more like public schools. In effect, vouchers and other plans for continuing to use tax revenue for schools will kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs of private education."

It should be noted that a bill to establish an initial limited voucher program, called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is now working its way through the NJ legislature. It has bipartisan, including Left-liberal, support. You can bet that if liberals support something, statism must be lurking nearby.

And so it is. For proof, let’s turn to a leading voice on the opposite side of the ideological divide. The Left-leaning NJ Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, came out swinging in support of the voucher bill. But contained within their editorial was a clear warning to the conservatives, right on cue – the standardized tests to be imposed on the private schools that receive voucher money, contained in the bill, doesn’t go far enough! The schools must be fully accountable to the state. Here are my posted comments:

Posted by zemack
May 13, 2010, 6:46PM


Parental school choice proponents are walking straight into a trap. Far from bringing competition to the public schools, state-funded vouchers will cripple the private schools, and bring them into the orbit of the government-run public school establishment. The evidence for this position, and a lead to a real pro-capitalist, pro-free market educational reform program, is embedded right in this editorial. The Editors write:

“…the bill fails to hold private schools accountable. It requires them to test voucher students with the same tests given in public schools, and that’s a start. But it has no mechanism to exclude private schools that are failing these kids.”

When the government pays, the government sets the terms. And it will. The issue is not accountability or no accountability, but to whom private schools are accountable. If government determines the success or failure of the private school – the same government that runs the public school monopoly – then the whole point of school choice is moot. Private schools become an extension of the same system that makes choice necessary. So, where does one find a “mechanism to exclude private schools that are failing these kids?” The customers – i.e., the parents – make that determination. That is the whole point of competition. The Editors seem to believe that the parents are smart enough to pick the school, but not smart enough to determine if that school is doing the job for their children. This is a bizarre contradiction. As the Editors make clear, when the government pays, the government controls. This is a prescription for the mediocretization of the private schools.

So, if not vouchers, then what? The Editors point to the solution – tax credits. The Editors seem to be aware of the corrupting and controlling nature of government funding in relation to religion:

“To avoid violating the constitutional separation between church and state, the bill would not send state money directly to parochial schools. The money would come from private corporations, which would be compensated with tax credits…”

The separation doctrine is the critical political mechanism for upholding the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. If we are going to have true school choice – which means, freedom of education – we need to get politics out of education just as religion is free from political interference. We need the separation of school and state for the same reasons we need the separation of church and state. The first step towards that goal is to expand the corporate education tax credit idea to all families and individuals. This idea is more complex than can be dealt with here. But the tax credit idea would keep private schools truly private, for the same reason that tax credits, as the Editors correctly note, would keep religion private. The payment would come from private, not government, sources.

State-funded vouchers provide the rational for ever-widening establishment control. This bill is not capitalism nor is it true competition for the public schools, as some correspondents argue here. A true free market, parental choice alternative leaves parents and educators free to contract voluntarily with each other, to mutual advantage, without government interference except as an enforcer of that contract. Vouchers make that contractual freedom impossible because, as has been shown, the government becomes the arbiter of educational success or failure, rather than the parents who know their children best.

I urge anyone who values school choice to oppose government vouchers with all of the intellectual firepower they can muster. The Opportunity Scholarship Act and any such government-funded voucher scheme is a Trojan horse for expanding the government’s public education monopoly over private schools. (Are you listening, my Republican and conservative friends?) It should be defeated, and a true reform bill modeled on tax credits and the principle of independence for educators and parents is the way to go, as a step towards a fully free market in education.

Governor Christie intends no small, half-way measures. His approach is bold, aggressive, and courageous. He means to engage the entrenched establishment, including the coercive political power of the state teachers’ union, in full frontal ideological combat. He has done us a huge service by bringing education to the front burner in a big way. The government-run public school monopoly has been put on notice - your days are numbered in New Jersey. For this, he deserves enormous credit.

Unfortunately, his energetic enthusiasm is hitched to the wrong solution. While some measure of educational improvement is bound to occur early on, if his plan is fully implemented, the very advantages of private education that makes parental choice so appealing will eventually be washed away. They will get smothered by establishment conditions attached to their voucher checks, as the bureaucratic handcuffs are slipped on and their entrepreneurial freedom such as it is slips away.

We are at a moment in time when the principle of freedom of education is being taken seriously. It is critical that we get it right. Whatever happens now, we are unlikely to get another crack at real education reform for a long time to come. And, if the voucher plan doesn’t live up to expectations – and it is unlikely to – free market solutions will again take the blame even though no free market will have been given a chance. Government-funded school vouchers paid to government regulated schools is statism, plain and simple.

In his speech to the school choice advocacy group American Federation for Children, Christie called the universal voucher idea the “final solution” to our education problems. No, it isn’t. It is the final solution for the full government takeover of all education. The right path to take is for a system of comprehensive, non-redistributive tax credits for education as a step – and only a step - towards true freedom of education: the separation of school and state.

1 comment:

ACH said...

Nice post. I'm glad you pointed out the false hope that vouchers offer along with identifying the increased governmental control of private education they would eventually usher in.

Aquinas Heard