Education and the Election

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The election settled two issues decisively. First, huge swaths of the American electorate have been woefully underserved by the public education system, and hence reform and revolution of that system is a priority. Second, the path toward educational reform will not be vouchers, which the voters rejected more solidly than anything on the ballot this season.

On the first point. Al Gore is a frightening combination of hereditary politician, socialist ideologue, earth-loony Luddite, central-planning technocrat, and serial liar, and yet he tricked 49 million into voting for him. Did they know that his beloved global warming treaty could lead to the abolition of gas grills and the rationing of lawn mowers? That he has no sense of what makes an economy work? That his official friends rank among the scariest social meddlers and political manipulators on the American political landscape?

It appears not, at least not in major sectors of urban America. In fact, the proof is the widespread complacency in the face of the left-wing suggestion that we abolish the Electoral College. This is the equivalent of calling for the end of what remains of the American system, which has republican and not democratic roots. There are problems with the original founding system, but it sure beats the heck out of democratic despotism over the whole country by Los Angeles, New York City, DC, and Chicago, which is exactly what we would have if the Electoral College were abolished.

Now, why is it that so many Americans don’t understand that mass democracy is incompatible with the American system? Why is it that so many Americans couldn’t recognize what a fraud Gore is just from a quick look at his programs? To be sure, I’m not an advocate of voting. I wish about 90 percent fewer people would do it. But for goodness sakes, if you are going to vote, don’t vote for bringing about an economic and social calamity.

Economist Thomas DiLorenzo is quick to blame the public schools for the ignorance of so many, and he is exactly right. I would only add that the public schools are in the worst shape in the areas that voted Democratic. Look at the behavior problems and test scores in places like DC and New York City: this is an empirical fact.

I don’t doubt that there are many great teachers still working today, and many good schools in rural and suburban areas that haven’t fully succumbed to centralized management. But in large cities, the schools are nothing but holding tanks that un-educate on all essentials, and otherwise devote their free time to political and social indoctrination. They have gotten worse decade by decade, until arriving at their low point today.

Something must be done, which brings us to vouchers. They were first proposed in their current form in a 1962 book by Milton Friedman, who argued that they would create market competition. If public and private schools could directly compete for the funds government offered each student, they would offer better services and students and parents, not the education bureaucrats, would be in charge.

On paper, and like all central plans, the argument seems pristine and unobjectionable. What is suggested here is not a pure free market for education, but a market socialist model that attempted to inject a monopolized system with some elements of competition. It may not be perfect, proponents argued, but surely it would be an improvement over the current morass.

The main appeal, however, was its seeming strategic merit: it concedes that education is an entitlement to be funded by the state; the only argument is on the mode of delivery.

For several elections, the strategic advantages of the voucher position has been tested at the polls. In each election the majorities against the idea have become more decisive. And in 2000, voucher advocates experienced what should be a death blow.

Michigan’s school voucher measure went down, 69 to 31 percent. California’s similar measure went down 71 to 29 percent.

Folks, these are not close margins. The nuanced differences between the bills didn’t matter. The one that permitted wider use of vouchers failed just as miserably as the one that encouraged narrower use. People may be dumb, but they are not so dumb as to think vouchers are a viable path to education reform.

Yet the denials from the pro-voucher people continue. They say they were outspent — but they knew they would be at the outset, and that’s also what they have said in past elections. Besides, if it really were a popular cause, spending wouldn’t matter. People are perfectly free to vote for vouchers if they wish. The fact is that vouchers are deeply unpopular with the very constituencies that, on paper, would appear to be natural supporters.

Now, some unpopular causes are worth promoting and even putting on the ballot. I certainly favor many of them — the abolition of the Fed, the end of the drug war, free trade with Iraq, etc. But the whole point of the voucher movement from the very beginning was that it is a politically strategic way to end the school monopoly. If a strategy doesn’t work, it should be abandoned.

Why are vouchers unpopular? Get past the nonsense about teacher-union spending, voucher advocates, and realize that there are extremely good reasons why people who otherwise support solid conservative causes have rejected vouchers. It is not rocket science.

First, vouchers are guaranteed to compromise the independence of private schools; courts will not permit institutions to be on the government dole and avoid government control. This reflects the public sentiment that tax dollars should not be used unaccountably, as conservatives have argued about arts funding.

Second, vouchers are expensive, and more expensive than the present system in the short run.

Third, vouchers replicate a key problem of public schools in private schools: topsy turvy demographic reshuffling driven by egalitarian and not economic considerations.

Fourth, and finally, vouchers subsidize and socialize an entire industry that is currently working on a free-enterprise basis.

There are many good people in the voucher movement who doubtless dream of eliminating the public schools and replacing them with private schools. But to make the voucher measures palatable to the media elite, the supporters have had to deny this at every turn.

They protest that they don’t want to harm public schools but help them, that they don’t want to cut education spending but increase it. All these protests convey the impression that the voucher people are intellectually confused on precisely what they are trying to achieve.

Most pathetically, the voucher advocates have even tried to enlist left-wing rhetoric about the "right" to a quality education to their side. That only ends up convincing the left that vouchers might not be such a bad idea after all. Writing in the July 1999 Atlantic Monthly, Matthew Miller said that vouchers increase education spending, give preferences to the poor, and subject private schools to public control. From the socialist perspective, he asked, what’s the problem?

If vouchers aren’t the answer to the problem of public schooling, what is? Certainly not more government spending. As economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway have repeatedly shown, there is no connection between higher spending and higher achievement; if anything, the causation runs the other way.

The problem of public schools can be summed up in economics jargon: "path dependency." It would be far better for everyone except the teacher and administrator unions if they were abolished tomorrow, and the money returned to the taxpayers, with entrepreneurs and parents establishing and paying for private schools. But how do we get from here to there?

There are several obvious steps. We can deregulate in large and small ways. The more freedom that education entrepreneurs have, and the more freedom that parents have, the more likely it is that alternatives to public schools will flourish.

We can cut taxes to make private school more affordable. We can decentralize in funding and control, and allow existing public schools to manage their own affairs. We can get rid of compulsory schooling, which should be anathema in a free society. Above all, we can do everything in our power to get the federal government out of the education business.

This is a long-term approach, and it is one that many groups are already working on. The key is to never lose sight of the goal: to free kids from control by public schools, and get them into independent alternatives funded by private money.

In any case, the resources spent on promoting political gimmickery that is a proven failure would be far better spent on the goal of diminishing government’s control over education, not increasing it. There’s a long-term payoff too: young adults with solid educations are far more likely to recognize frauds when they attempt to seize control of the most powerful office in the land.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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