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Friday, November 9, 2007

Ersatz School Choice

Vouchers go down in crushing defeat

That headline thundered from Wednesday’s Salt Lake City Tribune, as it announced that more than 60 percent of Utahans who voted on whether to uphold the statewide school-voucher program said no. It was a big setback for the voucher movement. The Utah legislature had approved the program by one vote. But the teachers’ union, which opposes vouchers, gathered enough signatures to put the question to the voters. It poured a ton of money into its successful effort to have the people veto the law. This was the tenth time in over 30 years that voters have defeated school vouchers or education tax credits, says the National School Boards Association.

It may not look like a win for the cause of educational freedom, but in the long run it might be. That depends on what we do about it.

I doubt if Utahans rejected vouchers for the right — that is, libertarian — reasons. More likely, they did so either because they bought the union’s argument that vouchers would drain the government schools’ coffers (unfortunately, they wouldn’t have) or because they feared who might turn up at the private suburban schools. Regardless, the voters’ acceptance of vouchers would have jeopardized the private, relatively independent schools in the state. So I see Tuesday’s ballot results as a dodging of the bullet.

The law passed by the legislature would have required private schools to [g]ive a formal national test every year to each student. A national test means only one thing: a standardized test approved by the education establishment. This might sound innocuous, but it’s insidious. Who controls the exam controls the curriculum. And who controls the curriculum controls the school. The law also would have compelled schools to publish the test results. Would schools have taken a chance on getting poor test results (even if their kids were learning anyway)? No. Schools wanting eligibility for vouchers would have had no choice but to teach to the test. Teaching to the test means teaching kids how to take tests. How would that create school choice?

Unsurprisingly, governments tend to attach conditions to the money they give away. It is no rebuttal to say it’s really the parents’ money. For most — but not all — parents, that would be true (some would be subsidized), but the point is politically irrelevant. It would be seen as government or public money. And that means most people would find plausible the argument that the ultimate recipients of such money must be accountable. Accountable would mean accountable to the government’s school bureaucracy. Voucher advocates are aware of this. In Utah they accepted the testing requirement, although given that provision, one wonders how the game could have been worth the candle.

It’s the Government

All of this gets to the crux of the voucher issue. We can demonstrate that an unhampered private sector is more effective and efficient than government in whatever it does because it is entrepreneurial, unlike a bureaucracy. But that doesn’t get at the fundamental issue — which is this: government should not be in charge of educating our children. Why not? Because it’s the government — the institution that rests on the morally flawed premise that it is all right for politicians to take other people’s money without their consent, interfere with their peaceful transactions, and exploit the weak. Why on earth would we want schools built on that foundation?

It is tempting to try to use government as a shortcut to freedom. Look how readily libertarians embrace medical marijuana and physician-assisted suicide, both of which, in the name of expanding choice, would further subordinate the individual to the Therapeutic State. So it would be with vouchers. (These days, government schools are undisguised agencies of the Therapeutic State.) Exactly how does luring nongovernment schools onto the plantation advance the separation of school and state?

There are no shortcuts to liberty.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.