The School Voucher Myth

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Here's
a safe prediction for 2003: the Republican majorities in Washington
will not even consider abolishing the Department of Education, and
none of the states will shut down their so-called free, so-called
public school systems. Countless kids from poor families will be
forced to attend government schools where they'll be just as likely
to be a victim of a violent crime as to learn anything useful or
even graduate.

Given
these certainties, some libertarians believe we need to do something
right now to save these poor kids from their 13-year prison sentence
(where else but in prisons and in public schools are the warehoused
inmates constantly watched, and subjected to warrantless search
at any time?). Thus, the "do-something-now" libertarians
are pushing for voucher programs, since the United States Supreme
Court has cleared the way for them to do so with its decision last
summer in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which held that voucher
programs that allow students to attend religious schools do not
violate the First Amendment.

Vouchers,
their advocates usually admit, are not perfect, but are at least,
they claim, "a step in the right direction" toward fully
privatized, voluntary education, because vouchers rescue kids from
their dire state-imposed circumstances.

But
in their concern, these otherwise reliable defenders of liberty
— people like Dr. Walter Williams, and Clint Bolick of the Institute
for Justice — focus narrowly on the short-term choice issue and
lose sight of bigger, longer-term, and more important issues.

Keep
in mind that these are not evil men, plotting the destruction of
freedom. Indeed, they are sincere, honorable men of good will, with
the best of intentions, but mistaken. And what they are mistaken
about is the fact that in this world good intentions are utterly
meaningless, only results count.

Ignoring
the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt, they look at the
short term consequences of vouchers for a few people, instead of
the long-term consequences for everyone.

If
they fully examined the bigger picture, voucher advocates would
see that vouchers are not appropriate, and will destroy any "school
choice" we already have.

Vouchers
Destroy School Choice

The
short-term consequences of voucher programs will almost certainly
be positive, of course, especially for the students who receive
them. The children in Cleveland who won in the Zelman case
will now be able to attend a private school far superior to the
government-operated school they'll leave behind. One can hardly
help but feel good for those kids, whose potential futures are undeniably
brighter because of vouchers.

But
government money means government control, and in the long run,
those private schools won't be so private at all, or much different
from the government schools to which they were intended to provide
an alternative. Every available historical example makes it abundantly
clear that when government provides money for something, government
expects control over that thing; it's happened with higher education
in this country, and it's happened with primary and secondary education
around the world.

I've
found that when voucher advocates are confronted with this possibility
— that government money will result in a loss of independence for
private schools — they tend to agree that this is something we should
be concerned about, and then they kind of shrug it off and hope
for the best, apparently naively trusting that, just this once,
government will restrain itself and not ruin everything.

Clint
Bolick, one of the country's leading voucher advocates, and a lawyer
on the winning side of the Zelman case, responded to a question
along those lines by saying, "Well, if that happens, we'll
be in court challenging that, too."

I
admire self-confidence, and Mr. Bolick is an amazing litigator.
He is a man I have worked with, and is someone I consider a friend.
But given that any court can go any way it wants to on any issue,
depending entirely upon the whim of the judges or justices involved,
is it worth risking the independence of America's private schools
on any one man's ability to persuade the courts not to extend government
control over private schools, no matter who he may be? The answer
should be plain, especially given the courts' record of, and institutional
bias toward, extending government control over pretty much everything.

Besides,
this issue has already been decided. In 1984, in Grove City College
v. Bell, the United States Supreme Court ruled that any college
or university is to be considered a recipient of government money
— and therefore subject to government regulation of its financial
aid program – if even one of its students receives a federal
loan or grant. And on top of that, Congress subsequently passed
the so-called “Civil Rights Restoration Act,” to extend federal
regulation over all of these schools’ programs, if even one student
uses federal money to attend them. Why would we expect a court or
legislature to act any differently when it comes to vouchers for
primary and secondary education?

The
safe bet is, the voucher issue won't be any different. Government
control always follows government money, and when it does,
"choice" disappears, just as it has among institutions
of higher education.

But
couldn't some private schools turn down vouchers? They could, but
there would be strong financial incentives against doing so, when
all of their competitors will take them. In higher education, only
2 schools (Grove City College
and Hillsdale College) have
had the courage to turn down government funds and avoid government
control. Why would we expect things to be any different for primary
and secondary education?

One
can look to other countries for examples of how government has destroyed
school choice through funding to "private" schools. Australia
attempted a government funded "privatization" of its schools,
and the result was increased regulation, centralized decision-making,
and loss of private school independence. The same can be seen in
Europe, where government funding has virtually destroyed religious
education, and resulted in tight control over almost all decision-making
in the private schools that remain. Why would we expect things to
be any different when government begins funding heretofore private
schools in this country?

Vouchers
Destroy Liberty

Now
that the First Amendment hurdle has been cleared with the Zelman
decision, voucher advocates still face barriers in most state
constitutions. Many state constitutions contain "Blaine Amendments"
or other state provisions that explicitly prohibit "compelled
support" by taxpayers of religious schools. So now, according
to Clint Bolick, the challenge is to convince state courts that,
despite what their constitutions may say, it's okay to force taxpayers
to give students money to attend private religious schools. (See
Clint Bolick, "School Choice: Sunshine Replaces the Cloud,"
Cato Supreme Court Review 2001-2002, p. 168.)

At
this point, libertarians who thought vouchers were about liberty
should really be scratching their heads. Why would a libertarian
ever want to go to court to convince the government that it should
force taxpayers to pay for something they weren't previously forced
to pay for? How can forcing people, against their will, to pay for
new things — that have nothing to do with the proper role of a "limited"
government — be a step in the right direction? That isn't libertarian;
instead, it's a goose step in the opposite direction.

True
Choice

Libertarians
understand that when you have a goal, you should take the peaceful
actions necessary to achieve it. The best way to achieve any goal
— like educational freedom — isn't to try to persuade a majority
of voters to agree with you. That goal isn't necessarily impossible,
but it's doubtful that you'll ever achieve it — or that your children
will still be school-aged by the time you do.

Many
parents across the country know a far superior way to escape government
control altogether, right now: they homeschool their children. Homeschooling
is a solution for parents who want to be free from government schools
("public" and "private"), right now. True, homeschoolers
still have to pay taxes for government schools, and don't get any
of it back. It's just a fact of life that freedom isn't free in
the United States. But if freedom is important to you, you can have
it, without creating a new welfare/anti-choice program like the
one the voucher crusaders advocate.

In
the meantime, libertarians have an opportunity to continue to promote
genuine educational freedom: absence of all coercion in education,
and genuine, unlimited choice.

January
1, 2003

J.
H. Huebert [send him mail]
attends the University of Chicago Law School, and has a website
at www.jhhuebert.com.
For more details on how government money destroys private education,
see his monograph, "Independent
Schools at Risk
," The Freeman/Ideas on Liberty, September
1999.


     

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