School Vouchers Are a Neocon Trick

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The debate within the conservative movement over school vouchers keeps coming back. This reminds me of the sequels to the Frankenstein and Dracula movies in the 1930s and 1940s. No matter how many times the mob from the town destroyed a monster, it came back. The reason was clear: money. There were still ticket-buyers ready to see him return. Finally, it ended with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. When Bud and Lou got the screen rights, the franchises were over.

The latest revival of the school vouchers issue has come as a result of a Tea Party group in Pennsylvania, which is promoting vouchers for economically poor students. The idea is being challenged by libertarian Tea Party members. The New York Times describes the proposed law.

The bill would give vouchers to students in failing schools who are poor enough to qualify for the federal free lunch program. The amount would vary according to how much money the state contributes to each district and would be expanded to a limited number of additional students in the second and third years of the program. It would cost an estimated $50 million in the first year, $100 million in the second and $1 billion in the third.

The Times recounts tales of splits on other issues within the Tea Party movement in other states. According to the article, the Tea Party is a negative political movement: united on what it opposes, but fractious on what should be done. I think this overestimates the Tea Party’s agreement on what it opposes.

That the movement could divide over school vouchers indicates that there is a recurring disagreement within the Right over what the civil government should fund and why, as well as what it should not fund and why not.

This debate has gone on for my all of adult life. It goes back to Hamilton and Jefferson in 1790: the debates over whether the U.S. government should assume the debts of the states, and whether the government should create a central bank, privately owned. Hamilton won the votes, but he did not win the arguments. He favored centralization. Jefferson did not, at least not in 1790. When he was President, it was a different matter. Think "export embargo" and "The Louisiana purchase."

VOUCHERS BACKED BY GUNS

Thirty-five years ago, my article against school vouchers was published in The Freeman: "Vouchers: The Double Tax." I began with a quotation from a book by the grandson of John Quincy Adams, The Education of Henry Adams. He wrote it in 1907, but it was not published until immediately after his death in 1918.

All State education is a sort of dynamo machine for polarizing the popular mind; for turning and holding its lines of force in the direction supposed to be most effective for State purposes.

I argued that the crisis in education, which was becoming visible in 1976, is in fact a crisis of the government-run schools. It cannot be fixed, because the principle of education run by the government is wrong. It is not the State’s responsibility to educate children. It is the parents’ responsibility. I offered this assessment:

Like the sinking ship which finally takes on too much water, the government education system is irretrievable. It will be useful in the future only as scrap. But what about those millions of students who will go through the system before it finally sinks? Will they too become useful only as scrap?

I argued the following.

First, the tax-funded educational system is inherently contradictory. The justification for tax-funded schools is that it brings the benefits of education to the poor. But education involves concepts of truth and falsehood. It involves the selection of facts and topics. The state has certain standards of truth and falsehood. It uses state funding to promote the truth and inhibit falsehood. I add today: think "Darwininan evolution." Think "central banking."

There are taxpayers who have reverse views of what constitutes of truth and falsehood. Inevitably, tax money is extracted from one group of voters to promote the causes and beliefs of another group. The big winners are the educational bureaucrats, who promote their views at taxpayer expense.

So, education cannot be free under tax funding. There are no free lunches. There is also no free inquiry inside government schools. There are always badges and guns in tax-funded, government-licensed education. There are also wallets – less full after the local school tax assessment has been paid.

Americans have long understood this with respect to the tax-funding of churches. They have not understood this with respect to tax-funding of schools. Back in 1963, two Protestant scholars, one liberal (Sidney E. Mead) and one conservative (R. J. Rushdoony), identified the public school system as America’s only established church. They were correct.

It is worth noting that Massachusetts was the last state to abandon tax-supported churches, in 1832. Within five years, the legislature had created a department of education to supervise its newly created system of tax-funded schools.

Second, I raised the issue of the failure of the tax-funded schools. The schools were regarded by voters as declining, which in 1976 had become clear. Yet they were also regarded as agencies of public salvation – messianic, as Rushdoony called them. I wrote:

Education today occupies an equivocal position in contemporary life, functioning both as a scapegoat for every failure and as a catch-all for every hope and expectation of society. The schools and colleges are berated for extending their authority beyond the fundamentals of learning into a program which envelopes the whole child or the whole man, and, at the same time, are given additional responsibilities which can only extend their scope even further. Fundamental to this unhappy and contradictory approach is a messianic expectation of education coupled with a messianic attitude on the part of educators. The attitude of people towards education is that it is a god that has failed and yet a god who can perhaps still be whipped into fulfilling his mission.

This has not changed.

Third, I argued that the supposed pluralism of American life is denied by the nature of school funding.

The pluralism of American life is now, and always has been, in direct opposition to a philosophy of public education. Yet the irreconcilable conflict between these two principles has never been faced by the vast bulk of our citizens and virtually any of its educational theorists. The financing of a pluralistic culture must be voluntary, springing from the deeply felt needs of the various religious, intellectual, and cultural groups.

Three centuries of conflict over the control, content, and financing of public education serve as a testimony to the futility of combining a system of tax-financed schools with a pluralistic culture financed by free men. The system of education is elitist, as all professional systems must be, but with taxation as its base, the system is in conflict with democratic principles. It leads to a system of minority rule.

Fourth, I argued that the philosophical foundation of tax-funded education is the doctrine of neutrality. Only because education supposedly can be neutral and is in operation neutral can educators make a moral case for extracting wealth from voters and also passing compulsory attendance laws. If neutrality is a myth, then such coercion is inherently unjust, according to the presumptions of democracy.

An implicit schizophrenia undermines every system of public education. On the one hand, a primary justification for the existence of government-financed education is that the nation needs citizens who are educated for the responsibilities of democratic participation in the political processes. The schools are to educate men in terms of the "ethics of democracy" or "democratic values" or just plain "patriotism." Schools must inculcate "values," although the more vague these are, the better for the administrators.

On the other hand, in order to ward off criticism from various religious and ideological groups, public education is simultaneously defended as a system which inculcates no religious or ideological values whatsoever. Public education is simply technical, making possible a better, more productive, and more profitable life for all of its students. The stated goals of democratic education and strictly vocational or technical training are in absolute opposition to each other. The first absolutely affirms the value-laden nature of public education, while the second absolutely denies it.

Fifth, and by far the most important, is the debate regarding the locus of sovereignty over education. Is it the State or is it the family? To identify this locus sovereignty operationally, follow the money. Who funds the schools?

Any system of education must ultimately be the reflection of and product of the philosophical principles of those who finance the system. The decision about the financing of any institution inescapably determines the shape and content of that institution. Modern men, being secular, now recognize this fact when applied to the institution of the church. They see that a state-supported church is antithetical to the principle of freedom of conscience. They see, and religious zealots like Roger Williams see, that state-financed churches become the tools of the state which supplies the funds. But modern men do not see that this strict relationship between financing and operations applies equally well to government school systems. Somehow, the relationship is ad hoc; it works when churches are involved, but it is irrelevant in the field of public education. Like the established churchmen of two centuries ago, today’s priests and parishioners of the public schools refuse to recognize the nature of their relationship to the state.

This led me to a conclusion:

The crisis of education is therefore a crisis in the realm of values, with the values of the parents coming into conflict with the values, philosophies, and incompetence of those in control of the tax-supported educational system. If the parents continue to capitulate to the philosophy of public education, then they will continue to be defeated in their attempts to gain the kind of education they want for their children. There is only one way that all parents can gain such satisfaction: they must pay for the education of their children. They can earn the money or they can convince some third party to give them or their children the necessary funds on a voluntary basis, but the parents must pay. If they want to get what they pay for, they must pay directly, rather than paying through the coercive means of state taxation.

Sixth, I introduced the idea of school vouchers. I argued that they are a pseudo-market scheme. The element of coercion is basic. This is the bedrock fact of tax-funded schools. Follow the money, and we come to the state: badges and guns.

The state cannot legally hand over billions of dollars to parents unless parents are limited in what kind of education they are allowed to buy with the State’s money. So, the State will set up licensing agencies that will determine which schools are eligible. The moment there is government funding, there is government licensing.

To strengthen my case, I referred to chapter 9 of Milton Friedman’s 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, on occupational licensing. I argued that Friedman’s support of school vouchers in chapter 6 is inconsistent with chapter 9.

A school voucher is given to parents. They can send their children to any school they choose, or so the promoters say. The receiving school then turns over the voucher to the government for reimbursement.

This looks good on the surface. Schools must compete. Parental authority is maintained: greater freedom to choose. This defends educational pluralism.

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Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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