School Vouchers: The Double Tax

“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.” Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

We are continually bombarded by newspaper and magazine headlines informing us of the continuing “crisis in education,” which actually is a crisis in government-operated education. Virtually all the available data reveal that the crisis is accelerating. Inner-city schools have become literal battlefields between rival gangs, between teachers and students, between administrators and increasingly vociferous faculty unions, and most important, between outraged parents and the whole system. Yet the crisis is in no way confined to inner-city schools. The suburban schools of the white middle class are burdened with the multiple plagues of student boredom, drug [amazon asin=1438297173&template=*lrc ad (right)]addiction, and rapidly increasing alcoholism. A dozen years of falling scores on the college entrance examination reveal the steady nature of the erosion, despite the acceleration of costs associated with the public schools.

Educators cannot bring themselves to admit that the crisis is anything more than a temporary aberration–an aberration from the “normal” which itself was dead long before today’s administrators were born. The theories multiply, the explanations proliferate, and the crisis gets worse. What the last decade has brought is an understanding on the part of the public and a minority of government school employees (untenured, generally) that there is no answer. 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?

Parents are becoming aware of the discussion syndrome. The endless discussions in half-empty halls between a few parents and local administrators have not altered anything. The teacher conferences, the administrator conferences, the PTA conferences, and all the other conferences have proved useful only for the cataloguing of the unsolved and increasingly unsolvable problems connected with government education. Solutions have not emerged from conferences –or at least no solutions acceptable to parents, administrators, school boards, students, state legislators, and an angry group of levy-rejecting voters. If there are no solutions, why pay higher taxes? This is the reasoning of the voters. The reasoning of the school administrators is different. They only want to discover a new source of tax money that will be acceptable to the voters, or better yet, that will not be subject to public elections at all.


The problems of American public education are the problems associated with any system of government-enforced, tax-supported coercive wealth redistribution: the system of financing conflicts with the expressly stated goals of the planning agencies. This conflict between the method of financing and the stated goals of education has been with us since the days of the Puritans of New England who set up compulsory education which was to be financed, in part, by money collected by the local property tax assessor.

There is no education apart from conformity of thought. One thing is true and another is not. Education requires indoctrination. But the conformity of thought which is basic to all education creates conflicts when parents of differing first principles are required either to finance a hostile educational system or to send their children to it. The Puritans’ solution was to enforce conformity by expelling hostile families from the community. The modern bureaucrat’s solution is to force parents to finance an alternative school system as [amazon asin=B0028FL1TO&template=*lrc ad (right)]well as the government system, and then to take control of the private system later on.

Sidney E. Mead, in his important book, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (1963), has argued perceptively that the public school system is America’s only established church. His point is well taken. Like all systems of established worship, some people are forced to finance doctrines and principles that they do not agree with. They resent this fact, but instead of seeking for the separation of “church” and state, the modern parent only seeks to “recapture” the public education system. So deeply rooted is the idea of the necessity of public-financed education that those who are being destroyed by the system — who are losing their children to the system — cannot bring themselves to abandon it on principle. If the moral answer of the free man to the socialist’s policies of coercive wealth redistribution is “not yours to give,” then the moral answer to those who would somehow take over the public school system is “not yours to recapture.”

The religious nature of the conflict has been noted by R. J. Rushdoony: “The state is [seen as] the order of liberty, and the school is the means whereby citizens are prepared for the good life. The state has become the saving institution, and the function of the school has been to proclaim a new gospel of salvation. Education in this era is a messianic and utopian movement, a facet of the Enlightenment hope of regenerating man in terms of the promises of science and that new social order to be achieved in the state.” Yet precisely because the new state religious establishment has become messianic, it has also become the center of men’s criticism.

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. The decade which has just passed — one which began only a few months after these words were published — has brought a massive disillusionment concerning education. Nevertheless, the public’s faith in government-financed and administered education still persists, at least to the extent that people think the system can still be reformed, transformed, or recaptured.

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. Weber was quite correct when he argued that bureaucracy is antidemocratic by nature; control is separated from those who bear the financial burdens.³ Tenure and civil service protection assure that control and financing are kept separate.


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. The schizophrenia of public education can be seen in the doctrine of academic freedom. The doctrine was first developed by the professors employed by the Prussian universities that were the products of state financing. (Prussia invented the kindergarten and the graduate seminar, two of the least productive educational developments on record.) The universities were supposed to be extensions of the Prussian state, and they were understood as such by everyone, but professors wanted to be exempted from any form of censorship or control by the agents of the state. Thus, they invented the idea of academic freedom — the freedom of inquiry belonging to any certified scholar in his area of expertise. He is to be entirely neutral, however; his instruction must be based only on facts. He must not indulge in propaganda.

Yet, steadily, as the implications of epistemology have been recognized, the idea that “facts” somehow create a neutral world of scholarship has been abandoned. The so-called sociology of knowledge (sociology of prejudice) indicates that men can investigate only a tiny fraction of the infinite number of facts, gleaning facts and assembling them in terms of a philosophical framework. Presuppositions therefore influence interpretations, and interpretations are now recognized as ultimately religious in nature, i.e., they are accepted as unchallengeable first principles. While few students recognized this fact as recently as the early 1960’s, the effects of the Vietnam war and the counter culture have reversed this. The students, and many of their professors, now acknowledge what has always been true: education is not neutral. But if education cannot be neutral, then the public school system’s legal pillar — the assumption of neutrality — is exposed as a false justification for the maintenance of an established church and a tenured priesthood.


The ultimate source of the educational crisis stems from an error in first principles. Once committed to this error, the public education system has floundered repeatedly. To locate the source of the error, men need only ask themselves a single question: Who is responsible for the education of a child? The answers, of course, are varied: the parents, the church, the civil government, or a combination of the three.

The conflicts in education are in fact conflicts over a much more fundamental issue: the locus of authority, and hence, the locus of personal responsibility. The person or institution which possesses authority must be the one which takes on the responsibility. By affirming the legitimacy of tax-supported education, voters have attempted to transfer their responsibilities for the education of their children to another agency, the state. Yet at the same time, they affirm their own authority over the content and structure of the educational system. That they have lost almost every battle in their war with tenured, state-supported educational bureaucrats, is the direct result of the public’s abdication of personal responsibility, family by family, for the education of their children. The war was lost on the day that parents, as voters, decided to transfer the financial responsibilities of educating their own children to other members of the body politic. While Horace Mann can be regarded as the general who was victorious over private education in Massachusetts, he was only conducting mopping-up operations. The end had been determined two centuries earlier when the Puritans of Massachusetts affirmed the principle of tax-supported education.

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.


Do men finance their children’s educations directly, through the personal financial sacrifice of the family unit? If so, then the family is sovereign over education. The school is then merely an extension of the family. The family makes use of the efficiencies associated with the division of labor. Parents hire professional educators to train their children, but those who are hired are paid to adapt their educational skills to the needs of the families that are financing the education. This can be done directly, through family-controlled school boards, but it can also be accomplished through the indirect means of the market. The family hires the tutor, or the school, in the same way that it hires any other servant. The parents are directly responsible for their children, and the selection of a school is an act of responsible stewardship. The family has not delegated the responsibility of educating the children to anyone else. It controls the purse strings — the ultimate affirmation of earthly authority.

The more distant the source of the school’s funds from the family, the less control the family has over the selection of the teachers and equipment. If the church finances the education of its members’ children, then a layer of institutional bureaucracy is interposed between parents and teachers. This may be agreeable to many parents, but if church members other than the parents are expected to finance the school (as is the case in most instances), then they too have a legitimate right to determine school policies.

By transferring some of the burdens of financing education to other church members, the family thereby relinquishes a portion of its authority over the educators. The educators then serve someone other than the parents, or at least in addition to the parents: the deacons, the elders, the minister, the school committee, or whatever. By diluting authority, the educational bureaucrats gain more autonomy, since they can play off one church faction against another until everyone gives up and grants more autonomy to the administrators.

The bureaucrats gain their greatest control in tax-supported systems. Authority is so diluted at the level of the individual citizen that the expertise of the professional and tenured bureaucrats is overwhelmingly powerful. But their power is not tied to a personal relationship with the children (as it is with a parent), nor is it linked to a financial dependence on the parents, nor is it even linked to a community of shared values, as in the case of a church school. Their power stems from the unwillingness of legislators to turn off the funds. And the legislators’ unwillingness to interfere stems from two primary facts of political life: 1) the experts have an aura of invincibility about them, plus tenure; 2) the voters still believe in the establishment of the public school church. It is easier to give speeches than to take action, so legislators give speeches. Most of them are reelected most of the time, so the policy pays off in the coin of the political realm: votes. 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.

Until men are willing to cut off the political funding of the established church of America, they will see the educational crisis escalate. The visible sign of authority is the ability to pay for a service and the willingness to do so. Nothing short of this will suffice to solve the crisis in the schools, for the educational crisis is ultimately a conflict over authority. He who pays with his own funds will win; he who continues to pay by voting cannot possibly win.

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Professor Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago is one of the most technically proficient economists in America. As a defender of the principle of market efficiency, he has been able to gain many adherents within the economics profession. He has been especially successful in challenging the inefficiencies of the Federal regulatory commissions. His most popular and widely read book, Capitalism and Freedom (1962), was a landmark of the 1960’s, for it was popularly written by a professional economist who had long before established his technical proficiency before his peers. Some of the policy recommendations of the book, such as the abolition of occupational licensure by civil governments, have not been taken seriously by most economists and certainly not by professionals who now hold occupational licenses from the civil government. Yet from the point of view of those who are convinced of the technical superiority of the free market over governmental regulation, it is this kind of uncompromising stand taken by Prof. Friedman which is most valuable in the defense of freedom, not to mention capitalism.

The problem that many free market advocates have with some of Prof. Friedman’s policy recommendations is that too often he spends many pages in devising ingenious schemes that would make government programs more efficient and, Prof. Friedman fervently hopes, less burdensome to the taxpayers, businessmen, and innocent citizens of the land. These policy recommendations have one feature in common: they are pseudo-market devices. They would create a kind of shadow market — “almost a free market” — that could provide success indicators analogous to those provided by a truly free market. In doing so, he argues, these pseudo-market alterations would make government more responsive to the needs of citizens.

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