Vouchers Are Not Libertarian

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This article is excerpted from Libertarianism Today, by Jacob H. Huebert.

Libertarians would of course like to liberate the millions of students who are forced to attend government schools.

To achieve this, Milton Friedman suggested government-funded vouchers, which would allow children to use government money to pay for private-school tuition. Then at least parents and students would be allowed to exercise some choice as to where they could attend and escape the worst schools, and, the argument goes, education would improve as schools, including government schools, would have to compete for students and their (government-provided) money.

Although many libertarians have endorsed the voucher idea, vouchers are not necessarily libertarian. They do not strike at the root of the problem with compulsory government schools: the compulsion. They still rely on tax dollars taken by force, still allow children to be forced to attend school, and possibly increase the amount of government compulsion with respect to school curricula by imposing new requirements on heretofore private schools.

But aren’t vouchers at least a step in the right direction? Some libertarians sincerely believe so. But others suggest, with good reason, that vouchers are a step in the wrong direction.

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Vouchers as Welfare

One obvious problem with vouchers, in the libertarian view, is that they are a welfare program. That is, vouchers often transfer money from taxpayers to people who do not pay taxes because the programs are targeted toward people with low incomes. As Lew Rockwell has explained, "If the middle and upper-middle class want to send their children to private schools, they must shell out twice: once for public schools for everyone else and once again for the schools they actually use." The voucher recipients, however, just receive a handout. Libertarian voucher advocate Clint Bolick argues that vouchers simply "empower parents to spend their public education funds on public, private, or religious schools." But this is not so; vouchers in practice empower people to spend someone else’s "funds."

Libertarian voucher advocates may respond to this by arguing that vouchers do not necessarily require any increase in government spending; under some programs, public schools’ budgets are reduced for each student in the district that uses a voucher to go elsewhere. Vouchers may even reduce the amount of tax dollars spent on education overall if the vouchers are worth less than the amount the government spends per child at public schools. But this is not necessarily so, and voucher advocates tend to endorse vouchers even when they do not work this way.

For example, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Bolick called on Congress to allocate $2.8 billion for hurricane victims to attend private schools. After all, he argued, this was just a "tiny share of the $62 billion" that Congress had already appropriated for Katrina relief. This strays far from the traditional libertarian view. For decades, libertarians have celebrated the principled stands taken by Davy Crockett (as a Congressman) and President Grover Cleveland when they resisted appeals to support spending tax dollars on disaster relief — not because they didn’t want to help people, but because it was not their place to force anyone to pay for a matter ordinarily left to the private sector. Following Katrina, however, supposedly libertarian voucher advocates were doing the asking, and asking for far more than anyone ever sought from Crockett or Cleveland. Instead of opposing government spending, these libertarians were — like everyone else in Washington — asking that the government spend money on their pet project.

In calling for government spending, voucher advocates tend to sound more like modern-day liberals than like libertarians. Indeed, although the teachers’ unions ensure that the Democrats remain officially opposed to vouchers, voucher advocates have found allies on the left. The liberal Washington Post, for one, endorsed the District of Columbia’s voucher program and urged President Obama to support continued funding for it.

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Vouchers Versus Independent Schools

Even if vouchers didn’t increase government spending, many libertarians would still oppose them because they threaten independent schools. Government money, after all, usually means government control — and in education, that could mean that private schools would end up looking a lot like government schools.

Current voucher programs have strings attached, just as libertarian voucher critics would predict. For example, Milwaukee’s voucher program requires, among other things, that schools allow students to opt out of religious teaching. There is one practical way to comply with such a rule: to relegate religion to a particular course and scrub all other classes of religious content. Under such a requirement, schools that once applied religious considerations to many different subjects will no longer do so. In this way, the vouchers will prompt schools to stray from their original missions and control what those schools teach.

Schools that accept vouchers must also accept restrictions on whom they may admit (or deny admission to) as a student. For example, under the Milwaukee program and most others, schools must accept any student who wants to pay with a voucher — they cannot discriminate in their admissions for any reason, even, for example, religion. The result of this will be a drop in the quality of private-school students. The most disruptive students at government schools will now be allowed to drag down the educational environment at private schools. As the late libertarian champion of educational freedom, Marshall Fritz, observed, today’s private schools tend to attract a higher quality of student because presumably the student’s parents value education and, in many cases, must sacrifice for the child to be there. The parents’ attitude is likely to be reflected, to some extent, by the child. On the other hand, students who receive something for nothing are unlikely to appreciate what they receive and may degrade the experience for everyone else, just as they do now in government schools. (The easier the vouchers are to receive and spend, the more likely this is to be so.)

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Voucher advocates may argue that private schools can avoid any threat to their independence by refusing to accept vouchers. But vouchers would put such independent schools at a severe disadvantage in the market. The schools would have to compete against both regular "free" government schools and "free" private schools that accept vouchers. It is easy to imagine independent education mostly disappearing under these circumstances. As economist Gary North has argued, parents who want to educate their child in a truly independent school would have to

locate other parents equally committed religiously and ideologically to the principle of independent education, and also financially able to put their preference into action. How many concerned parents will do this? How many private school administrators will be able to operate a school while denying admittance to those who would pay with vouchers? How many of these schools with real commitment to private education will there be? I can tell you: very, very few.

The independent schools would not be killed off by genuine market competition; they would be killed off by government privileges extended to some schools — those willing to accept government control — and not others. A program that would do this cannot be called libertarian.