Vouchers Create Dependency
by Ari Armstrong, March 3, 2002
The purpose of vouchers is to break up the government school monopoly, right?
That might be the purpose, but the result will be only to strengthen government's stranglehold on education.
I addressed this issue four years ago at http://www.freecolorado.com/ari/ilib/vouchers.html. I haven't changed my mind since then. Because vouchers are again in the news, and indeed in the Supreme Court, it seems appropriate to revisit the issue.
The case against vouchers is quite simple. Today, a small but significant percent of families educate their children almost totally outside the government monopoly, either through private schools or through homeschooling. Yes, the government places minimal restrictions on these activities, but essentially this small segment of the population practices market education. Vouchers would take those now practicing educational independence and make them dependent on education welfare. Thus, vouchers would undermine market education in America.
As a secondary critique, vouchers, if actually passed into law, would likely be loaded with new government regulations of now-private schools. Thus, in addition to making more students dependent on government handouts for their education, vouchers would likely significantly corrupt what market education now exists.
When I have children, I intend to homeschool. Please, don't offer me vouchers. I want to take responsibility for educating my children. I don't want education welfare. It's an assault on my dignity and on the integrity of my family. It would tempt more families to trek down to the capitol every year to beg for more government dollars. I want to be independent, not dependent on government "help."
Two main arguments have emerged recently in the popular discussion that favor vouchers.
The first is related by Ruben Navarrette (of the Dallas Morning News) in an editorial for the February 24 Denver Post. Navarrette quotes Steve Ulibarri, a voucher proponent from New Mexico: "This isn't about religion. It's about money, and it's about power. It's about an educational bureaucracy trying to do everything it can to maintain control over the money that flows into public schools." Navarrette adds, "Today, the argument of voucher opponents might be church and state. Yesterday, the line was that vouchers would drain resources from public schools. Tomorrow, it will be something new. This bunch is not only self-righteous, it's flexible."
Navarrette's critique of many who oppose vouchers seems to be on the mark. For instance, Nancy Mitchell writes for the February 21 Rocky Mountain News, "'These are people of considerable energy and enthusiasm,' [State Board of Education member Gully] Stanford said of voucher proponents. 'I wish they would join us in addressing the needs of the public schools rather than flirting with this idea of promoting private education as a workable alternative.'" Stanford's vacuous retort suggests he may be motivated in ways Navarrette describes.
However, the argument, "Apologists of the current government school monopoly don't like vouchers, therefore vouchers are good," is fallacious. Vouchers are bad for reasons other than the ones Stanford relates. It's not always the case that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.
Deroy Murdock offers another argument in favor of vouchers in the February 23 Rocky Mountain News. Murdock notes, "If these vouchers unconstitutionally entangle church and state, then so do Pell Grants." Further, "[W]hy do anti-voucher liberals support the $4.8 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant Program? It provides federal funds for day care... [which] can be used at government-run child care facilities, at private, non-sectarian establishments and even at day-care centers run by religious institutions."
In other words, according to Murdock, because education vouchers are similar to other government welfare programs, that means they are a good thing. Obviously, this argument is also fallacious.
Fortunately, most libertarian-leaning advocates of vouchers don't make arguments like the ones offered by Navarrette and Murdock. Instead, they argue something like the following: "While vouchers would transfer tax dollars to now-independent families, they would re-introduce the concept of educational choice to many Americans. They would also vastly improve the education system, leading to improved critical thinking skills and therefore a renewed skepticism of government intervention."
This argument has a certain allure. However, making now-independent families dependent on education welfare will tend to reinforce government control of education. In addition, voucher programs are very likely to be watered down and further corrupted by the time they make it into law.
Hayek's "fatal conceit" cannot be escaped simply because those who advocate a new government program are motivated by libertarian sentiments.
Incidentally, my criticisms of vouchers apply also to the tax-credit proposal introduced as House Bill 1309 in this year's legislative session. That bill would essentially allow people to raise others' taxes (or reduce their tax refund, which amounts to the same thing) in order to subsidize contributions to organizations that offer vouchers to low-income students.
I believe voucher programs are the political equivalent of "get rich quick" schemes. They look great on paper, but they rarely work well in practice, and most often they end up costing the participant dearly.
What, then, is the answer? A number of organizations offer market vouchers totally independently of the state. Parents Challenge out of Colorado Springs (www.parentschallenge.org) accepts private contributions for a local market voucher program. My understanding is that the leaders of this organization want government vouchers to replace their program, and that's unfortunate. Market vouchers offer a legitimate and effective way for libertarians to promote market education.
In addition, libertarians should support the homeschooling movement and seek to repeal government intrusions in education at all levels. As a longer term goal, libertarians should seek to hold government funding per student constant in nominal dollars. Eventually, as we are able to demonstrate the massive waste in government schools, due largely to an entrenched paper-pushing class of bureaucrats, as well as the benefits and cost-effectiveness of market alternatives, we'll be able to ask for reductions in government spending on education.
So let us put aside the "get free quick" schemes that promise markets but will deliver only more government. Let us shoulder the difficult burden of creating true market alternatives and whittling away at the government school monopoly. It will be a slow and arduous journey, but one that can actually get us where we want to go.