by Steven Yates

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Many
libertarians cannot contain their enthusiasm over the Supreme Court's
decision last Thursday in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. This
5-4 decision allows Cleveland, Ohio parents to use federal education
money, otherwise known as vouchers, to send their children to private
(and religiously-based) as well as public schools. It has been described
as a major victory for school choice. Some writers are even comparing
this decision to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

For
example, Joseph Bast of the Chicago-based Heartland
Institute
wrote: “This is a major victory for civil liberties
and for low-income families who are trapped in under-performing
public schools. From now on, school vouchers are now clearly the
preferred way to improve the quality of schools for all children.
This decision is one of several recent developments, among them
Florida's first state-wide voucher plan and Secretary of Education
Rod Paige's advocacy of vouchers, showing the growing momentum for
the school choice movement. Government schools cannot remain islands
of centralized government control in a world of free markets and
private innovation. Change is coming, and not even teacher unions
will be able to block the door much longer.”

Likewise,
Clint Bolick, of the Washington-based Institute
for Justice
and the author of a forthcoming book Voucher
Wars to be published early next year by the Cato
Institute
, stated that “[n]early half a century ago, the U.S.
Supreme Court made a sacred promise of equal educational opportunities
for all school children. On Thursday, June 27, it made good on that
promise.” Bolick adds that the Court has “recognized … that school
choice is not about establishing religion, but expanding educational
opportunities for children who need them desperately.”

Libertarian
enthusiasm for vouchers is not a new development. A few years ago,
in What
It Means to Be a Libertarian
, Charles Murray wrote: "I
side with those who are prepared to accept government funding….
Parents of every school-age child would be given a chit worth of
a certain sum of money that they could take to any school they wanted…
How big should the voucher be? About $3,000 a year seems right,
though the amount is open to discussion…. The point of the voucher
is … to give parents options…. If $3,000 turned out to be too low
to achieve the desired effects, it could be increased."

Murray's
remarks are interesting, given their implications. Let's do some
quick arithmetic. With roughly 53.1 million school-age children,
suppose there was a voucher of $3,000 for each child. That would
add $159.3 billion per year to the federal education budget and
make it five times what it is now! A libertarian who would expand
instead of contract the federal budget? Surely something is amiss
here.

Libertarian
philosopher Tibor R. Machan expresses a far more cautious endorsement.
In a forthcoming article he singles out the notion that in a society
characterized by ever-expansionist government we achieve "a
very minimal victory" given that the Supreme Court was persuaded
of the justice for parents of having "the state give them (back?)
some funds so as to pay instead for the private education they select
for their children." Professor Machan observes that the one
"vital favorable aspect of the court's decision is that citizens
will have an easier time to get out of the tyranny, the one-size-fits-all,
the indoctrination filled public education system." Despite
inherent faults in the voucher idea we should support it because
"a small step will have been taken toward removing the state
from its position as the sole word on history, civics, religion,
biology, sex, marriage, social science and what have you. The voucher
programs, despite their marred nature, encourage diversity, something
that is much closer to what a free education system would provide
than what we have via public education. And they do not prohibit
going out a fully private educational alternative for those who
can afford being double billed."

Professor
Machan is in effect saying, given that we must choose between vouchers
and complete government monopoly, let us choose the lesser of two
evils. Why does he see the nature of vouchers as "marred"?

He
answers: "I recall way back in the 1970s there were those who
argued that any kind of voucher program is useless, indeed, dangerous,
because, among other things, getting private education supported
this way will have intolerable government strings attached…. [O]nce
the government's fingers have touched the dough, it can then insist
that certain u2018standards' its bureaucrats lay down be followed. This,
then, deprives the private schools of their autonomy or independence,
thus corrupting them irreparably." Professor Machan appears
to believe that this danger is outweighed by the victory won in
that parents can use government money to send their children to
private schools if they wish.

I
beg to differ. The first rule of federal funding is that with
every dollar there are strings attached, and this is a much
bigger danger with vouchers than any of the above writers would
have us believe. It seems very odd to me that only Professor Machan
seems to have noticed this. Some of the strings may not be apparent
at first; bureaucrats may be inherently power-hungry, but rarely
operate in an all-at-once fashion (the initial effects on our paychecks
of the progressive income tax instituted in 1913 were negligible,
after all). But eventually they do become apparent, and then the
problem Professor Machan identified becomes manifest. Educrats are
able to use the fact that the money is coming from the federal government
– i.e., from taxpayers – to assert control. Federal education
money means federal education control. Just ask leaders at colleges
such as Hillsdale and Grove City who had to fight major lawsuits
to keep free of federal interference; one of the upshots of these
lawsuits is that no student attending either can accept a single
federal dollar – for anything.

Vouchers
mean control. I fear this will become evident should vouchers ever
become established, in which case it will be too late. There are
warning signs now, if one is aware of them. The most recent School
Liberator (published by Marshall Fritz's Alliance
for the Separation of School and State
) quoted Peoria, Ill.
school board member John Day stating, “If [a voucher proposal] does
happen, educators want to ensure any school receiving tax dollars
must follow the same rules and be held accountable to the state,
including accepting any student and administering standardized tests.
Currently private schools do not have to do those things.” Day made
no secret of what would be the goal of the educrat in a voucher-dominated
educational system: a power grab. “If public funds are to be used
to support private schools, then private schools should be held
accountable to the same laws and statutes that public schools must
abide by.”

We
absolutely must realize that with government money comes government
control. Home school and private Christian school advocate Rev.
E. Ray Moore of the Exodus
Mandate project
, in his just-published book Let
My Children Go
, makes this point forcefully in a section
entitled "Vouchering Toward Gomorrah." Rev. Moore argues
that vouchers threaten the autonomy of private Christian schools.
Citing Marshall Fritz, he singles out three problems with the voucher
idea. First, vouchers help trivialize private education by making
it easier to obtain. "If parents must work extra hours … to
send their children to a private school, this sends the message
that quality education is important to them." Education should
not be simply dropping Johnny off on the doorstep of a private
school instead of a government school. Second, private religious
schools will eventually be compelled to accept every student whose
parents present the voucher. Thus they lose control of their admissions
policies and find themselves facing many of the same troublesome
students that subsist in the government schools.

In
the hands of the John Days of the educratic world, they will soon
lose control of their curriculums as well. Third, because they do
represent easy money coming from the government, vouchers have more
in common with welfare than their proponents recognize. Lew Rockwell,
author of the
most important current article
connecting vouchers with welfare,
wrote some time back, “Vouchers represent not a shrinkage of the
welfare state but an expansion, the equivalent of food stamps for
private schools.” Rev. Moore accordingly refers to them as “school
stamps.” He fears that if the voucher movement spreads and becomes
established, parents will come to expect vouchers. They will become
just one more entitlement.

This
will open the door to left-liberal control over vouchers. Rev. Moore
quotes Jonathan Rauch as having chastised his fellow liberals back
in 1997 for their opposition to vouchers. Rauch stated that "[v]ouchers
are … a classic opportunity to equalize opportunity. Why should
the poor be denied more control over their most important means
of social advancement, when soccer moms and latte drinkers take
for granted that they can buy their way out of a school (or school
district) that abuses or annoys them…. By embracing school choice
… liberals could at one stroke emancipate the District's schoolchildren
…" This further illustrates the welfarist nature of vouchers
and shows how they mean a very short term victory for "school
choice" but are really a long-term instrument of control that
could well erode the independence and hence the effectiveness of
private schools.

Vouchers
are indeed tempting. Easy money always is. Most defenders of vouchers
are sincere, I am sure. They believe they are doing the right thing
for parents and for children. But the case against vouchers outweighs
the case in their favor, which seems limited to Tibor Machan's observation
that vouchers offer a small island of choice in a vast sea of government
expansionism. This, however, is a rear-guard action against the
inevitable trend, which would be eventual federal control over all
forms of education in this country.

Government
money is always trouble. First, it must come from somewhere,
and there are only two places it can come from: out of all our pockets
in the form of tax dollars, or from inflating the currency and continuing
to mortgage the country's future in the ever-expanding ocean of
debt. Second, whether the money goes to individuals in the form
of direct welfare handouts, to corporations in the form of "investments,"
or to parents as educational vouchers, it threatens to create more
dependency than we have now. Third, and most important, it will
increase the spiral of government control by extending this control
to private schools. Eventually it be impossible for parents to send
their children to autonomous religion-based schools. Sure as I am
sitting here, once children are attending such schools via vouchers,
some atheist will challenge them on the grounds provided by the
First Amendment's separations clause. The case will again be fought
all the way to the Supreme Court, and this time the outcome might
be very different.

Let
us stop the "school stamp" juggernaut while we can, before
we wake up one day and discover that federal educrats have connived
their way into the same control over private schools as they have
long had over so-called public ones – the result being that
private schools would be private in name only.

July
6, 2002

Steven
Yates [send him mail]
has a PhD in philosophy and is a Margaret “Peg” Rowley Fellow
at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
He is the author of Civil
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(ICS Press,
1994), and numerous articles and reviews. At any given time
he is at work on any number of articles and book projects, including
a science fiction novel.

Steven
Yates Archives

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