The Colorado Freedom Report

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

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Colorado's Voucher Wars

by Ari Armstrong, April 21, 2004

Nancy Mitchell wrote an intriguing article for the Rocky Mountain News April 3 titled, "Teachers cite threat to public education." Michell writes, "The Colorado Education Association on Thursday [Aril 1] mailed 100,000 brochures to parents" that read, "Dismantling public education is not what Colorado voters or parents want." Mitchell continues, "CEA President Ron Brady said the campaign was spurred by research linking various individuals and groups from across the country to an effort to divert public dollars to private and religious schools." CEA is also behind a TV ad and a web site. "In addition to [Alex] Cranberg [of Littleton], the CEA list includes Steve Schuck of Colorado Springs, Milton Friedman of San Francisco and John Walton of the Walton Foundation," Mitchell reports.

It's no secret that a lot of conservative leaders, joined by liberal supporters worried about the low quality of many inner-city schools, support vouchers for K-12 education. I've written about many such leaders. I've been aware of the issue since I read Friedman's 1980 book, Free To Choose. CEA's breathless urgency about the grand conspiracy now, a quarter century after the voucher movement took off, is a bit of a mystery.

Still, the organization's web page provides some interesting reading. It states, "In recent years, the battle over public education has escalated. Ideologues, zealots and profiteers are manipulating and misrepresenting issues in ways that are putting Colorado children's education at risk. Their goal is to undermine public education and direct tax dollars to private and religious schools. We say enough is enough. It's time to put a stop to this underhanded effort to end our democratic system of free education for all."

Calling the supporters of vouchers "ideologues, zealots and profiteers" is merely an ad hominem attack -- paid for by the very people charged with teaching Colorado's children critical thinking skills. It is no surprise, though, that the beneficiaries of the coerced redistribution of wealth spend some of those resources to maintain their benefits, as I've recently pointed out.

If an "ideologue" is someone who adheres to an ideology, then the only alternative to being an "ideologue" is to be an ignorant moron. Today's system of socialized schools is the direct result of a specific ideology -- one taken in large part from Prussia well after the founding of the United States (ever wonder why parents send their children to the "kindergarten?" See Sheldon Richman's Separating School & State, pages 40-52). The important question is not whether one holds an ideology -- all thinking people must -- but whether one's ideology is true or false. If, on the other hand, an "ideologue" is someone who stubbornly adheres to a false ideology, then that term aptly describes the proponents of socialized education.

The term "zealot" is a throw-away ad hominem, so let us move to the claim concerning alleged "profiteers." The voucher movement is driven mostly by political activists who volunteer their efforts. True, these days conservative think-tanks (such as the Independence Institute) pay some people to promote vouchers. However, these funds are collected from voluntary contributions. Anyway, whether or not one makes any money to promote or oppose vouchers is irrelevant to the validity of the case, whether for or against. But for the CEA, which collects its funds forcibly from tax payers and represents those on the government payroll, to call the advocates of vouchers "profiteers" is the height of hypocrisy.

CEA makes a number of unsubstantiated claims about the proponents of vouchers, then turns to a defense of "public education." Here, the CEA case is incoherent. If "public education" means, as the CEA suggests, "our democratic system of free education for all," then vouchers are part of the public-education system. They are implemented through the democratic process (either via initiative or an elected body), and they assure "free education for all," when "free" is taken to mean paid for by tax payers.

CEA, then, cannot coherently oppose vouchers because they undermine "public education," because vouchers further entrench that system. What CEA doesn't like is that vouchers go to schools with somewhat less bureaucratic control. As I have written, I share CEA's concern that vouchers redirect tax funds to religious schools. However, this argument, if held consistently, requires one to oppose spending on government schools per se, which instill the religion of collectivism and the welfare state.

It is a linguistic trick to refer to schools on the government dole as "private." Vouchers inevitably bring government control. An April 6 AP article about Milwaukee reports, "One school that received millions of dollars through the nation's oldest and largest voucher program was founded by a convicted rapist. Another school reportedly entertained children with Monopoly while cashing $330,000 in tuition checks for hundreds of no-show students." Tax dollars come attached with government strings, which must attempt to compensate for the misincentives of coerced payments.

Picking up on the story about Milwaukee, the Denver Post's editorial board on April 12 praised efforts to impose government controls on Colorado schools that accept vouchers. According to last year's court-thwarted plan and a similar proposal this year, the Post notes, schools that accept vouchers must meet bonding requirements, present "detailed curriculums" to the state, subject employees to background checks, and give students the Colorado School Assessment Program tests. An institution that takes money from the state and meets the mandates of the state is not "private."

That the CEA conflates tax-funded bodies with "private" ones, and "public" education with government education, indicates the tax-funded propagandists of the CEA do not even wish to rhetorically allow for the possibility of a public school system (understood as "open to the public") that operates entirely by the principles of voluntarism in a free economy.

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