Are Vouchers the Solution for Our Failing Public Schools?
by Rep. Ron Paul, MD by Rep. Ron Paul, MD
The US House of Representatives, September 30, 2003
Mr. Speaker, many of those who share my belief that the most effective education reform is to put parents back in charge of the education system have embraced government-funded voucher programs as a means to that end. I certainly sympathize with the goals of voucher proponents and I believe that States and local governments have the right, protected by the Tenth Amendment, to adopt any sort of voucher program they believe meets the needs of their communities. However, I have a number of concerns regarding proposals to implement a voucher plan on the Federal level.
The basic reason supporters of parental control of education should view Federal voucher programs with a high degree of skepticism is that vouchers are a creation of the government, not the market. Vouchers are a taxpayer-funded program benefiting a particular group of children selected by politicians and bureaucrats. Therefore, the Federal voucher program supported by many conservatives is little more than another tax-funded welfare program establishing an entitlement to a private school education. Vouchers thus raise the same constitutional and moral questions as other transfer programs. Yet, voucher supporters wonder why middle-class taxpayers, who have to sacrifice to provide a private school education to their children, balk at being forced to pay more taxes to provide a free private education for another child.
It may be argued that vouchers are at least a more efficient welfare program than continuing to throw taxpayer money at public schools. However, the likely effect of a voucher program is to increase spending on new programs for private schools while continuing to increase spending on programs for public schools. For example, Mr. Speaker, during the debate on the DC voucher program, voucher proponents vehemently denied that any public schools would lose any Federal funding. Some even promised to support increased Federal spending on DC’s public and charter schools. Instead of reducing funding for failed programs, Congress simply added another 10 million dollars (from taxes or debt) to the bill to pay for the vouchers without making any offsetting cuts. In a true free market, failing competitors are not guaranteed a continued revenue stream.
Many supporters of vouchers couch their support in rhetoric about a child’s right to a quality education and the need for equal educational opportunities for all. However, accepting the premise that people have a "right” to a good of a certain quality logically means accepting government’s role in establishing standards to ensure that providers are giving their consumers a "quality” product. Thus, in order to ensure that vouchers are being used to fulfilling students’ "right” to a "quality” education (as defined by the government) private schools will be forced to comply with the same rules and regulations as the public schools.
Even some supporters of vouchers recognize the threat that vouchers may lead to increased Federal regulation of private schools. These voucher supporters often point to the fact that, with vouchers, parents will choose which schools receive public funding to assuage the concerns of their critics. However, even if a voucher program is free of State controls at its inception, it will not remain so for long. Inevitably, some parents will choose a school whose curriculum is objectionable to many taxpayers; say an academy run by believers in the philosophy of the Nation of Islam. This will lead to calls to control the schools for which a voucher can be used. More likely, parents will be given a list of approved schools where they can use their voucher at the inception of the program. Government bureaucrats will have compiled the list to "help” parents choose a quality school for their children.
The fears of these voucher critics was confirmed on the floor of the House of Representatives when the lead sponsor of the DC voucher amendment admitted that under his plan the Department of Education would have to begin accrediting religious schools to ensure that only qualified schools participate in the voucher program because religious schools currently do not need to receive government accreditation. Government accreditation is the first step toward government control.
Several private, Christian schools in my district have expressed concerns that vouchers would lead to increased government control of private education. This concern is not just limited to Christian conservatives; the head of the Jewish Anti-Defamation league opposed the recent DC voucher bill because he feared it would lead to "…an unacceptable effort by the government to monitor and control religious activities.”
Voucher supporters will fall back on the argument that no school is forced to accept vouchers. However, those schools that accept vouchers will have a competitive advantage over those that do not because they will be perceived as being superior since they have the "government’s seal of approval.” Thus, those private schools that retain their independence will likely be forced out of business by schools that go on the government dole.
We have already seen how a Federal education program resembling a voucher program can lead to Federal control of education. Currently, Federal aid to college students is dispersed in the form of loans or grants to individual students who then transfer these funds to the college of their choice. However the government has used its support of student loans to impose a wide variety of policies dealing with everything from the makeup of student bodies to campus safety policies. There are even proposals for Federal regulation of the composition of college faculties and course content! I would remind my colleagues that only two colleges refuse to accept Federal funds (and thus Federal control) today. It would not be a victory for either liberty or quality education if the experience of higher education was replicated in private K—12 education. Yet, that is the likely result if the supporters of vouchers have their way.
Some supporters of centralized education have recognized how vouchers can help them advance their statist agenda. For example, Sibhon Gorman, writing in the September 2003 issue of the Washington Monthly, suggests that, "The way to insure that vouchers really work, then is to make them agents of accountability for the private schools that accept them. And the way to do that is to marry the voucher concept with the testing regime mandated by Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Allow children to go to the private school of their choosing, but only so long as that school participates in the same testing requirements mandates for public schools.” In other words, parents can choose any school they want as long as the school teaches the government approved curriculum so the students can pass the government approved test.
Instead of expanding the Federal control over education in the name of parental control, Congress should embrace a true agenda of parental control by passing generous education tax credits. Education tax credits empower parents to spend their own money on their children’s education. Since the parents control the education dollar, the parents control their children’s education. In order to provide parents with control of education, I have introduced the Family Education Freedom Act (H.R. 612) that provides all parents with a tax credit of up to $3,000. The credit is available to parents who choose to send their children to public, private, or home school. Education tax credits are particularly valuable to lower income parents.
The Family Education Freedom Act restores true accountability to education by putting parents in control of the education dollar. If a child is not being educated to the parents’ satisfaction, the parent will withdraw that student from the school and spend their education dollars someplace else.
I have also introduced the Education Improvement Tax Cut Act (H.R. 611) that provides a tax credit of up to $3,000 for in-kind or cash donation to public, private, or home schools. The Education Improvement Tax Cut Act relies on the greatest charitable force in history to improve the education of children from low-income families: the generosity of the American people. As with parental tax credits, the Education Improvement Tax Cut Act brings true accountability to education since taxpayers will only donate to schools that provide a quality education.
Mr. Speaker, proponents of vouchers promise these programs advance true market principles and thus improve education. However, there is a real danger that Federal voucher programs will expand the welfare state and impose government "standards” on private schools, turning them into "privatized” versions of public schools. A superior way of improving education is to return control of the education dollar directly to the American people through tax cuts and tax credits. I therefore hope all supporters of parental control of education will support my Family Education Freedom Act and Education Improvement Tax Cut Act.
Dr. Ron Paul is a Republican member of Congress from Texas.