The Coming Voucher Failure

Another California voucher initiative, Proposition 38, is headed for defeat. And it will happen for the same reason that big-government spending programs are failing in state after state. Taxpayers have rightly become very stingy with their money. They don’t like politicians stealing it and spending it on new redistributive schemes. If and when the voters have anything to say about it, they say no. That the establishment conservative movement is backing this one will make no more difference in 2000 than it did in 1996.

Why should this surprise anyone? It shouldn’t, but we are still going to be put through four months of Voucher Hell, listening to liberal opponents tell us that Prop. 38 will destroy public schools (oh sure!) and conservative partisans tell us that government spending is the answer to all education woes, so long as the right people get the money. They will trot out data, pseudo-scientific policy studies, speeches from think tank blowhards, and racial victimologists of all sorts, and it will be pure torture. But in the end, Californians will see that Prop. 38 means more school spending and maybe more school taxes, and will vote it down.

Already, some groups have awakened to the voucher racket. For example, the 200,000-member Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is opposing Proposition 38 on grounds that giving parents $4,000 per year to spend on elementary education would cost taxpayers billions. It’s not only the costs associated with sending kids to private school; it’s the prospect of having the government pick up the tab for what parents are currently paying for private school.

Now, some people say this spending bill will eventually save $2.4 billion per year, just as the Clinton administration always claims that its new programs will “eventually” save taxpayer money. The supposed off-setting cuts in spending never materialize. Meanwhile, hard-headed types who look more directly at the actual out-of-pocket costs have concluded that this bill could end up costing $500 million per year. Whom do you believe? Those who say that government spending saves money, or those who say it costs money? Once again, the conservative voucher supporters have really stepped in it. They are throwing away whatever credibility they have in California as fiscal watchdogs to support a massive new welfare program. It’s true that the public schools are terrible, but the way around this is to cut school taxes and have parents shell out their own money for education. Why are conservatives (and this goes for many libertarians too) always wanting to replace one central plan with another central plan (and one that may even cost more)? The rhetoric of the initiative, however, is designed to enlist conservatives in the cause. Consider this opening flourish: “Test scores from students in government operated schools reveal that the public school system in this state has become an inefficient monopoly, with many parents forced to enroll their children in schools that are failing to prepare students with the foundation skills of reading, writing and mathematics.” Agreed. But notice the restrictive language. It complains about “government operated schools” (say, shouldn’t that be hyphenated?) but not government-funded schools. That’s because the bill proposes to keep and even expand government funding, putting private schools on the dole and thereby compromising their autonomy and institutional integrity. This is phony-baloney privatization, an attempt to enlist the rhetoric of markets, competition, and choice on behalf of a program to subsidize and control the private sector.

The authors of Prop. 38, however, have learned from the voucher failure four years ago. This time, they have included paragraph after paragraph saying that private schools must “be free from unnecessary, burdensome or onerous regulation.” But what regulatory agency admits that its edicts are unnecessary, burdensome, or onerous? They always claim to act in the public interest and in a manner consistent with human rights, freedom, and all the rest.

Moreover, the initiative says that the legislature may further regulate private schools only if they do “not unduly burden or impede private schools or the parents of students attending private schools.” Again, no legislature in human history has admitted to “unduly” burdening the people. They always claim that their edicts are humane and wonderful. Do the authors of this bill really believe that they can restrain the educational Leviathan with a few pious exhortations?

Despite all these promises, Prop. 38 still directly increases regulation of private schools, including home schools that seek to benefit from the payola. Voucher-taking schools may not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, or national origin, “or advocate unlawful behavior of any kind.” Let a teacher blurt out a few words endorsing civil disobedience, and the school may find its funding ripped away. To prevent such an occurrence, private schools will scrupulously march to the government’s drum.

Note the exclusion of sex and religion as categories that can be considered when accepting voucher-wielding students. All it will take is one or two high-profile cases of voucher-taking schools advancing an aggressively religious program to bring these exclusions to the attention of the legislature. With one vote of three-quarters of the Assembly, it could be amended, gutting the religious programs of schools or forcing them to integrate by sex.

High schools taking vouchers must either be accredited by the state or prove to an accreditation agency that their curriculum prepares students to enter a university. And every year, the school must “prepare a statement of financial condition that lists the revenues, expenses and debts of the school” and “administer nationally normed reference tests, mandated to be taken by pupils enrolled in public schools and that provide individual student scores, to pupils whose parents have accepted scholarships, for the purpose of monitoring academic improvement of these pupils.”

As for discipline, the school must have government-approved grounds for kicking the student out of school. This means that a student must engage in “serious or habitual misconduct related to school activity or school attendance.” And what if the student steals or becomes involved in a gang in a way that doesn’t relate to “school activity”? The school may not be able to toss him out. On the margin, these kinds of regulations can make a huge difference in the composition of the student body and the culture of the school.

The danger is especially acute for homeschoolers, who in California are treated exactly like the unregulated private schools. Under Prop. 38, home-school kids should be able to get voucher money. But there is no way that public opinion will support paying families $4,000 per child kept out of school. Special provision in the law will be made, which will inevitably bring homeschoolers under some sort of regulatory control, whether or not they apply for or receive vouchers. This would be a disaster!

Now, some people may say these regulations are reasonable given that taxpayer money is at stake. Taxpayers don’t want their money being spent on students without strings attached any more than conservatives want artists to receive money from the National Endowment for the Arts with no strings attached. This is not an unreasonable position. Indeed, restricting how government funds are used by private parties is a routine part of fiscal management, particularly as regards education, particularly during the last 30 years.

The restrictions are intolerable, but it is not the restrictions themselves that are the core issue. It is that private schools would be enticed to accept government funding in the first place, thereby subjecting themselves to public scrutiny. These schools would compromise their independence, regardless of the details of the law itself. Taxpayers themselves demand no less. And what disasters would befall homeschoolers if they reconfigured themselves so as to qualify for vouchers?

Like all other voucher bills before it, Proposition 38 won’t create alternatives to the public schools. It will force the present alternatives to public schools to behave more like the public schools. A far better and simpler option would be to push for a clean initiative that permits non-refundable tax credits for private-school and home-school families. Better yet, just cut taxes. Government spending is not the answer to education; it is the problem.