Vouchers: A Response to Joseph L. Bast and David Harmer
by Ari Armstrong
April 9, 1998
I recently read "Vouchers and Educational Freedom: A Debate," Cato Policy Analysis No. 269, March 12, 1997, with great interest, as one who used to carry petitions to put the voucher on the ballot in my state of Colorado but who now agrees with Marshall Fritz that trying to achieve the separation of schools and state with vouchers is like trying to cross a ten foot chasm with two five foot planks. (The paper can be found at The Cato Institute.)
The paper is worth reading particularly for Douglas Dewey's critique of the voucher proposals. Dewey argues that vouchers would be inevitably corrupted by politicians and thus counter-productive to the cause of Separation. He offers numerous examples of how other legislative efforts, including past voucher proposals, have been twisted to serve political aims. I thought I might try here to supplement Dewey's presentation by pointing out a few internal problems with the case for vouchers as laid out by Bast and Harmer.
Bast and Harmer acknowledge that they "are 100 percent committed to getting government out of the business of educating our children." They argue, then, that implementing vouchers is an important, even a necessary, step in this direction. However, they provide an ineffective case to support their plan, in my view.
Bast and Harmers' two main problems are that they fail to argue convincingly that vouchers will remain uncorrupted - that is, that vouchers can extend educational freedom rather than political controls - and they fail to counter other Separatist strategies (such as Fritz's). I.e., contrary to Bast and Harmers' claims, vouchers won't work, while alternate Separatist efforts might.
One of Bast and Harmers' important, if peculiar, arguments is that merely by winning a voucher proposal (passing it into law) the voucher-separationists will prove that they have the political strength to keep the vouchers pure and free of government controls:
Enactment of voucher legislation requires that the advocates of deregulated schooling be stronger or better organized than the advocates of regulated schooling. Why assume that a force sufficiently strong to enact such legislation would be too weak to defend it, later, against teachers' unions and other advocates of regulation? Just the opposite is more plausible: the greatest test of advocates of choice will be to enact the legislation."
I grant that, IF the voucher-separationists were able to pass a voucher only with the support of voucher-separationists, then that would likely prove that they had the strength to keep vouchers pure, as that would prove that they were a majority of the population. (However, if this were the case, I see little reason why they would not simply end government intervention in education once and for all.)
However, this is not in the least a plausible scenario. More likely, the voucher-separationists would pass vouchers only as part of a broad coalition, not on the whole opposed to extending political controls through vouchers. And Bast and Harmer admit this a number of times:
Some of the most prominent advocates of vouchers claim that their adoption will strengthen, rather than weaken, government schools... [S]ome advocates of vouchers do not seem to care if vouchers come with regulations and restrictions attached... A much larger majority supports continued public funding of K-12...
But is it enough even to suppose that vouchers might pass through the support of those who want only minimal controls on vouchers and continued government subsidization? I think not. More likely, as Fritz argues, before vouchers actually pass into law they will be hijacked by "the left" and laden with controls. The welfare-liberals, then, will simply use vouchers to extend State controls to home-schoolers and private schools.
But Bast and Harmer counter that, since the government can already regulate home-schoolers and private schools, it won't make much difference if the private educators receive voucher money:
Fear of greater government control of private schools is misplaced, first, because state governments may already regulate private schools at will. In the name of public safety or the general good, state governments can and often do mandate curricula, hours of study, qualifications of teachers, facilities, student evaluation, and other intimate details of private schooling. What prevents excessive regulation is not the absence of a "cash nexus" between private schools and the state but the strength of opposition to such regulation.
Bast and Harmer are dangerously half-right. It is true that the "absence of a cash nexus" does not prevent the government from regulating schools. However, it is an illogical leap from this truth to the supposition that, WITH a "cash nexus," the regulations would not increase. I think it's abundantly obvious that the push for regulation would increase substantially if home-schoolers and private schools took vouchers. The "opposition to such regulation" would thus face a much more difficult task. If there is one iron-clad rule of government, it is that what the government funds, it will regulate.
But Bast and Harmer continue to argue that vouchers will not in fact carry with them burdensome regulations. They offer to us the example of Social(ized) (In)Security, in which recipients are left free to purchase whatever they please with the money:
[T]here are many precedents of government control not following government money when that money subsidizes demand rather than supply. Millions of Americans receive government aid through Social Security, welfare, college tuition grants and loans, and other entitlement programs. They use that money to buy goods and services from a wide range of institutions, including for-profit, nonprofit, and religious institutions. Have those institutions come under the control of government because they accept that money?
Again Bast and Harmer are half-right; what they say about these other institutions is basically right, but they are in no way analogous to K-12 education. Government grants play a relatively small role in college funding, and loans are of course repaid. This is far different from making the *sole* or at least predominant source of funding of education a voucher system.
Welfare is indeed regulated, especially through food stamps. However, welfare and Social(ized) (In)Security are hardly analogous to K-12 education. The point of these programs is to transfer wealth according to America's egalitarian principles of justice. (Obviously I disagree with welfare-statism.) So it just doesn't matter how the recipients spend the money; the important thing is that the wealth is taken from some and given to others. However, the important quality of the current coercive system of education is that the government gets to mold children. Of course, the taxation is meant to transfer wealth as well, but the very foundations of political schooling are built around the notion that it is the state's responsibility to bring the children up right (or, rather, welfare-left). Thus, we have heard and will continue to hear loud cries to keep schools well-regulated to ensure politically acceptable education. I find it very hard to believe that vouchers might remain free of harmful regulations.
However, while Social(ized) (In)Security and welfare are not analogous to K-12 education in terms of what controls are generally advocated for the recipients of state money, the systems are analogous in how they perpetuate egalitarian principles. Sure, those who benefit from Socialized Insecurity are not regulated in their purchases, but this hardly redeems the system! In fact, Socialized Insecurity is a wealth transfer scheme thought up by FDR to toss old people out of the work force in which the poor and young pay the old and wealthy. It is perverse. If the best that vouchers can hope for is to emulate Socialized Insecurity, then I say let them rot.
The one thing I will give Bast and Harmer credit for is their creativity. They offer some arguments which are as astounding as they are unbelievable.
They say that "political theory supports the notion that services the performance of which is often highly subjective and interpersonal are poor candidates for political oversight and management. In those areas, bureaucracies and regulations engage in a fruitless attempt to achieve accountability."
I would agree with Bast and Harmer that schools are "poor candidates for political oversight and management." However, last time I told this to the politicians, they seemed to pay me not a whit of attention. I've discovered a very strange phenomenon among politicians: the less something *should* be regulated, the more they want to regulate it. Hence, regardless of what "political theory" suggests *should* be regulated, I have very little confidence that these are same things which *will* be regulated. That the politicians will "engage in a fruitless attempt to achieve accountability" in education I have no doubt; what worries me is that their fruitless quests will not hinder them from destroying education on the side.
But let us not dwell upon the obvious. Bast and Harmer offer an argument of Constitutionality in which they claim the Supreme Court has come down against the regulation of vouchers:
Proposals for school choice are invariably designed to ensure that the voucher is legally regarded as a grant to the individual child or his or her guardians, not aid to the school. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), ruled that the distinction between subsidizing students and schools (or demand and supply) is one of three necessary components of constitutional school choice programs. The other two components are that the program serve a secular purpose and that it not involve the state in 'an excessive entanglement with religion.' In other words, school choice plans must be designed to protect the independence of private schools in order to pass the test of constitutionality.
But it sounds to me like private schools will be kept "independent" only of religion. While I don't particularly like the idea of church-sponsored or affiliated education, neither do I like the idea of the government influencing education either toward or away from religious affiliations.
And Bast and Harmer do mis-represent the Court's decision a bit. I shall let the reader judge for him or herself whether the Court's decision, as summarized by an un-biased legal scholar, permits vouchers to remain free of government regulation: "Under the Lemon Test, for a statute not to be a violation of the Establishment Clause, it must meet the following conditions: (1) it must have a secular legislative purpose, (2) its principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion" (Ronald Kahn, "Lemon Test," The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, Oxford University Press 1992).
However, the more important point is that, while the Court *might* allow unregulated vouchers, a point of which I'm not at all convinced, they certainly will not require them. That is, the political pressures will create legislatively (and bureaucratically) regulated vouchers, and the Court will not prevent this.
So far I've discussed the problems with Bast and Harmers' case for vouchers. However, what bothers me most about Bast and Harmers' presentation is not their flawed arguments for vouchers, but rather their condescending slights toward anti-voucher Separationists.
Consider the following:
[E]conomic theory supports the notion that vouchers would deliver higher quality services, more customer satisfaction, and lower prices. Support for vouchers is widespread among economists, including at least five recent Nobel laureates. People who understand even rudimentary economics tend to support vouchers because of their promised efficiency gains...
In other words, if the anti-voucher Separationists were only smart enough to grasp elementary economics, they would understand what incredible wonders vouchers would bring. The poor, stupid sots.
But if Bast and Harmer "understood even rudimentary public-choice economics," they would oppose vouchers because of their promised inefficiency losses due to the political hijacking of voucher legislation.
The whole point we as anti-voucher Separationists are trying to make is that vouchers will not yield the desired "efficiency gains," precisely because they will not pass in the form Bast and Harmer might wish but rather merely as yet another vehicle for politicians to stifle true educational choice.
Bast and Harmer continue to bash straw-men by misrepresenting a wide number of anti-voucher Separationist views.
Those who oppose vouchers "think letting people keep their own money is the same as a subsidy or new entitlement," say Bast and Harmer.
However, the voucher initiatives have nothing to do with "letting people keep their own money," and everything to do with maintaining the egalitarian wealth-transfer scheme of the current school system.
I would advocate legislation which required only those parents who chose to place their children in political schools pay the fees of those schools. Then, and only then, would we be "letting people keep their own money." But to say, as do Bast and Harmer, that vouchers accomplish this end is absurd.
Next, argue Bast and Harmer, those who oppose vouchers "do not trust people to make their own decisions."
This is ridiculous.
What we who oppose vouchers do not trust is politicians to make decisions about educational finance. And this is surely what vouchers would do. If Bast and Harmer wish to counter this empirical claim - whether vouchers would or would not lead to political controls - that's one thing, and a worthy argument to be had. However, Bast and Harmer are totally out of line for ascribing views to those who oppose vouchers which are the precise opposite of the views we actually hold.
But Bast and Harmer are relentless in their quest to offend those who disagree with them. For next they claim that we anti-voucher Separationists are so dumb as to "imagine that the trend toward increased regulation and government control is irreversible." I.e., we have absolutely no concept of how we might "turn back the tide," and are merely set on opposing the True Champions of Freedom, who are of course Bast and Harmer themselves.
"So great is their fear of government control that anti-voucher separationists would rather live with socialism than dare to experiment with privatization," they say.
However, it is our contention that vouchers are themselves experiments in *socialism*. This is the argument which Bast and Harmer need to counter if they wish to proceed with their case for vouchers.
Finally, Bast and Harmer say that those who oppose vouchers "overlook the fact that the current system is neither free nor just."
Praise God; I can see! All this time I was thinking that the current system is both free AND just! And here I was mistaken all along, for it is neither! I thank Bast and Harmer pointing out my ignorance to me.
Of course, the real problem with Bast and Harmers' "analysis" is that it fails to take into account the positive alternatives that anti-voucher Separationists (in my view the only Separationists worthy of the name) have offered to the voucher proposals.
They blithely assume that we wish for instantaneous Separation, for they write, "Complete separation 'in a single bound' is unlikely to occur." They talk about Separationists as if we wish to "mount a referendum effort for complete separation."
"What do the anti-voucher separationists offer instead of vouchers? Vague promises that the government schools will 'collapse' in time, if only we wait long enough. 'Plans' that consist of abolishing the Department of Education and regulations on private schools and ending tax support for government education are all fine and worthy objectives, but objectives are not plans. They fairly scream at us the obvious question: how do we get there from here?" wonder Bast and Harmer.
Bast and Harmers' failure to grasp the Separationists' viewpoint is a result of their infatuation with the political process. "Whatever its merits ideologically, complete separation is currently a political fantasy," they write. They think that change can come only, first, and foremost from the political process, while true Separationists realize that cultural change must precede any meaningful political reform.
Trying to play "policy wonk" games, trying to beat the welfare-liberals by their own rules, can only make matters worse, argue Separationists.
But that does not mean that Separationists are sitting idly by, as Bast and Harmer believe us to be. (Separationists "know how grave a threat government ownership, operation, and control of schools pose to democracy, liberty, and prosperity. They know, yet they do nothing," say Bast and Harmer.)
Rather, we Separationists are fighting on three distinct fronts to win back education for true freedom of choice.
First, we are acting and writing and arguing to educate parents and teachers about the problems with political schools and the merits of free-market schools. We seek to persuade parents to withdraw their children from political schools. This lays the cultural foundations for true reform.
Second, we are involved in politics in meaningful ways that actually reduce the State's power over education rather than increase it. We actively oppose government regulation of home-schooling and private schools, we call for an end to compulsory education, and we work to decrease the level of taxes available to political schools.
Third, we work to provide viable alternatives to political schools. Many of us work in private education in some capacity. I have spent the last several years of my life tutoring privately and developing courses which other private educators can use to educate children outside the political system. (Hence, I take great offense to Bast and Harmer referring to the recent years of my life as "doing nothing.")
We do not imagine that meaningful cultural reform can come about through crafty words written on a petition. We understand that true change requires a shift in fundamental beliefs concerning the nature of the state and the nature of the individual. We do not pretend to have a quick fix; we devote ourselves to tireless effort on behalf of our cause. We know where we are headed and hope to achieve our goals within our lifetimes. Voucher proponents, on the other hand, prepare their saddle for the Beast they hope to ride into educational heaven.