by Steven Yates

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