Many, many people across the political spectrum are concerned about the dire state of government schools today. Not only are too many students arriving at college illiterate, innumerate, and ignorant, but many also had to survive a dangerous and destructive time in government schools.
Competition Is Key
Free society advocates argue that a market solution—thriving competition—is the key to change. In his 1960 Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek proposed a plan to take the government out of the business of schooling by providing parents with publicly-funded vouchers with which to pay for any school of their choice.
As has been shown by Professor Milton Friedman (M. Friedman, The role of government in education, 1955), it would now be entirely practicable to defray the costs of general education out of the public purse without maintaining government schools, by giving the parents vouchers covering the cost of education of each child which they could hand over to schools of their choice. It may still be desirable that government directly provide schools in a few isolated communities where the number of children is too small (and the average cost of education therefore too high) for privately run schools. But with respect to the great majority of the population, it would undoubtedly be possible to leave the organization and management of education entirely to private efforts, with the government providing merely the basic finance and ensuring a minimum standard for all schools where the vouchers could be spent.” (F. A. Hayek, 1960, section 24.3)
Many free society advocates have been campaigning for voucher systems for the past 2-25 years, and some cities (Milwaukee and New Orleans) and states (Florida) have instituted them.
The main opposition to school vouchers is that they threaten to put public education in direct competition with private education, reducing and reallocating public school funding to private schools. Of course, the teachers’ unions and the National Education Association are against them.
But I have an entirely different reason to oppose vouchers, and it revolves around the phrase “ensuring a minimum standard for all schools where vouchers could be spent.” Contrary to the opponents who worry that vouchers will undermine the public schools, I’m sure they will undermine—level—the private ones.
Follow the Money
That’s because whoever controls the money controls the curriculum.
I founded and ran Council Oak Montessori School for children 3-15 years old for 27 years. It is a classic Montessori school; we do almost nothing like a traditional school, yet we’ve been cited, twice, in Chicago Magazine as one of the best private elementary schools in the city. Our outcomes are remarkable, but not easily standardized. Our students generally do well on standardized tests, but that’s not why we’re good.
Instead, we produce students who maintain their delight in learning, work hard, and know how to behave well with others while remaining their own person. Many do exceptionally well academically, but that depends on the individual. They are good at finding what they love.
Traditionalists just don’t get Montessori. It’s too different, too child-centered, too individualistic.
We have some graduates who struggled mightily with the academic work—and are now designers at Google and illustrators for the movies, well-known jazz musicians, gemologists, and auto mechanics. We also have graduates who didn’t want to do much but math—these became algorithm designers for Amazon Robotics and electrical engineers for manufacturers who are now also mad for learning history and reading literature. They just needed to develop their interests in their own time.
Traditionalists just don’t get Montessori. They have objections up the wazoo despite our 100 years of experience. It’s too different, too child-centered, too individualistic.
I’ve seen what happens to Montessori programs under the thumb of traditionalists—in Chicago public school Montessori magnet schools and in private Montessori schools run by traditionalists—or in caving to parent fear and pressure, and there’s plenty of that to go around.
Increased Elitism and Corruption
So, I predict this is what would happen under a voucher program, and here’s what I fear for the private schools: because the middle and working class already find it difficult to pay private school tuition, only the richest private schools, with the wealthiest parents, will be able to continue without taking vouchers.
Inevitably, there will be corruption. This will lead to government oversight, and before you know it—boom! We’re back to the government controlling the curricula, teachers, and programs. And the differences between private schools will be fundamentally wiped out.
What bureaucrat is going to decide the standards? Once government bureaucrats begin regulating, you’re down the same slippery slope that got us into our current educational mess.
The feds have become an octopus, encircling and strangling our colleges and universities with regulations, mandates, and controls.
It’s happened elsewhere: Belgium is a good example. In 1917, they instituted a voucher program to enable students to go to private and religious schools. Over the years, the schools have come to be more and more regulated by the state so that now, there’s no significant difference between them.
But we don’t really need to refer to what’s happened in Europe; we need only see the dire consequences of federal student loans at the college level today. First of all, the unholy private-public accreditation process of higher education began after the government issued GI Bill education loans and opportunists created fly-by-night schools to bilk the GIs. But now it’s even worse because of the Education Department’s student loans.
The feds have become an octopus, encircling and strangling our colleges and universities with regulations, mandates, and controls that have grown far beyond protection against financial corruption to enforce social mandates such as Title IX and others. Between these controls and the New Left manning the professoriat, the market in college education has been leveled. Diversity in ideas is down to a few places.
Independence and Freedom Should Be Protected
The only completely privately funded college I know of is Hillsdale College in Michigan. They chose to stay privately funded because of affirmative action: They were started in the 19th century by abolitionists who did not believe in discriminating based on race. In the ‘70s, they were required by the feds to employ affirmative action if they wanted to use Pew grants. But they considered affirmative action a form of racial discrimination. Rather than continue with it, their trustees decided the college should become entirely privately funded.
And now Hillsdale stands as one of the only ideologically unique higher education institutions in the nation. Too bad more places haven’t had the integrity to follow that path.
Returning to our fundamental problem: What about the kids?! What about the millions who are getting a terrible education in public schools? Aren’t we concerned with all those individuals? Should we advocate that they languish just because of what might happen 50 years down the road? Maybe we should just bite the bullet and use vouchers and charter schools (don’t get me started on those crony-ridden institutions!).
Tax credits are individuals deciding what to do with their own money, which puts them arms-length from government regulators.
I think a much better way to transition to a free market in education might be tax credits, although likely with pitfalls. Tax credits are via individual tax returns, not controlled and handed out by some government bureaucracy.
A person could get a tax credit for any amount donated toward a student’s tuition and fees, whether related or not. I can envision that private charities, like the DonorsTrust, would arise to administer the scholarships. Of course, there’s still the specter of the government regulating the use of the tax credits, a serious concern. But the fact that tax credits are individuals deciding what to do with their own money puts them arms-length from government regulators.
If you’d like an idea of what a real free market in education would be like, see Common Ground Against Common Core. I’ve penned the final chapter, “Liberating Education,” in which I outline the rich market in schools that would ensue if we had no government education programs at all, but a completely private market—and how everyone could be educated in it, no matter their wealth or penchants or problems. The evidence is there.