All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1971

The Voucher System Trap for the Unwary

Many advocates of liberty have recently responded with enthusiasm to the proposal of a voucher plan for primary and secondary education. Under this proposal, parents of school-age children would be given vouchers which could be redeemed at local public schools or be used as part or full payment of tuition at a private or parochial school. When used to pay for private education, the vouchers would have a specific cash value.

Proponents of the plan argue that it would offer several advantages over the existing system of tax-supported education in the United States. Parents would be free to enroll their children in a private school without the burden of paying tuition over and above the taxes they pay to support public education. Public schools, forced to compete for the tax dollars they now receive automatically, would be under pressure to improve their services. Furthermore, once the state educational monopoly had been broken, the “private sector,” infused with the vitality of a free market, would begin to perform minor miracles in attending to the educational needs of America. So say proponents.

On the other hand, some say that, if implemented, the voucher plan would virtually eliminate public elementary and secondary education; public schools would be at a serious disadvantage if forced to compete with private institutions for tax dollars since their rigid bureaucratic structure would not permit them to respond to the demands of a free market in education. No less an advocate of public education than Albert Shanker has predicted that “the adoption of such a plan would lead to the end of public education.”

A strong opponent of the voucher plan, Shanker bases his opposition on allegations that support for such a system comes only from parochial school interests making a grab for public funds, from those who wish to put their hands in the public till to send their children to segregated schools, from various revolutionary groups who hope to disseminate their ideas in tax-supported institutions, and from selfish taxpayers who believe that the implementation of a voucher system would result in a cutback in future allocations of Federal and state funds to education.

Those who oppose the use of the coercive power of the state for so-called social purposes are conspicuously omitted from Shanker’s analysis. One cannot resist pointing out that Shanker himself is the representative of an extremely powerful special interest group that has a strong vested interest in the continuance of the present system of public education.

The Promise Is Illusory

Given the apparent advantages of the voucher proposal and the nature of the opposition, it is tempting for those who favor liberty to rush into the breach and support it with unrestrained enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the promise that some see in the voucher system is illusory.

If such a plan were ever adopted, powerful interests would immediately begin lobbying in support of restrictive legislation that would undercut the element of free choice in the plan as it now stands. Under pressure from strong special interest groups such as Shanker’s United Federation of Teachers, laws might be passed to require that teachers in private schools meet standardized licensing requirements and that the physical plant of private schools meet arbitrary standards established by the government. Laws could (and would) follow laws, self-proclaimed reformers would come to advocate the imposition, on private schools, of what they would term “academic standards”; and, just as we now have a costly system of public education that wears the label “free,” we may easily end up with a system of state education that bears the appellation “private.”

There is a descriptive term that applies to an economic system in which business is nominally under private ownership while the state maintains an absolute control over “Private” business activities; that term is fascist. Is this what we want for American education?

Why, then, have many advocates of liberty supported the voucher proposal? The magic word here seems to be “choice.” But if the possible consequences of the voucher system that I have outlined ever were to become a reality, the parent who wished to send his child to a school free of government control would have a smaller choice than he has at present—or no choice at all.

The Unseen Coercion Behind the Good Intentions

At this point, many readers will remain unconvinced that the voucher system is a step in the wrong direction, that is, away from liberty. They might argue that the dismal possibilities I have cited are simply potential pitfalls, not necessary consequences; if we anticipate these statist measures, they can be fought and defeated. Therefore, they might conclude, the voucher system can be a constructive step toward the elimination of coercive government control of our pocketbooks and of our children’s minds.

To answer this argument, let us examine the nature of the “choice” that the proponents of the voucher system offer. In blunt terms the so-called element of choice amounts to offering the parents of school-age children options in how they may spend the money of others that has been expropriated by the state.

In principle, the freedom of choice offered by the voucher system is no different from the “freedom” demanded by some welfare recipients to spend public monies on such things as liquor as well as on the necessities of life. The unfortunate fact is that when the state takes over any market function, its citizens soon come to regard this as a natural and proper state of affairs; “conservative” citizens are no more immunized against this syndrome than any others. Just as the liberal may seek an expansion of welfare services on the grounds that present programs fail to meet the full needs of the people, so many “conservatives” are falling into the trap of advocating an expansion of the state’s role in education because their needs are not satisfied by the present system.

Those proponents of liberty who advocate the voucher system fail to recognize that, in so doing, they are giving an implicit endorsement to a principle that they profess to oppose. The fundamental premise of the voucher plan is identical to that underlying the present system of state education. The coercive power of the state (which in the final analysis means the threat or use of the gun) will still be used to seize the property of private individuals in the name of an undefinable public good.

Those who support the voucher proposal are playing the game that, in freshman political science courses, is called “democratic pluralism.” In plain language, this term describes a society composed of rival gangs—each fighting the others for a bigger cut of the tax collector’s booty.

Subsidies Are Not a Stepping-Stone to Freedom

There is one more argument advanced in support of vouchers that has not yet been answered. If liberty is ever to be regained in the field of education, runs the argument, it will not come overnight. If the present coercive system of primary and secondary education were abolished on the first of next month, many think the result would be chaos. Private schools are just not capable of taking over the massive job of educating all of our children on 30-days’ notice. Moreover, parents who have been complacently letting Big Brother bear the burden of seeing to the education of their children are ill-prepared to accept that responsibility themselves. What is needed, according to such an appraisal, is some sort of transition plan whereby education can be taken out of the hands of the state and responsibility placed where it belongs—with the parents.

Many voucher advocates see the plan as playing just this sort of role; they view it as a stepping-stone to educational freedom. But here too, they have allowed themselves to be deceived. We have seen how any build-up in the private sector of education fostered by the voucher plan will almost certainly be accompanied by an equal or greater build-up of state control over nominally private educational institutions. This is hardly the type of “transition” that a libertarian would knowingly advocate. Furthermore, rather than shifting the financial burden of education to the consumers of this service, the plan will remove some of the responsibility from those who have already shouldered it. And finally, the voucher system fails utterly to challenge the premise that the ultimate responsibility for education rests with the state. If education is ever to be truly free, it is this premise that must be overturned.

Mr. Patton is a graduate student and part-time lecturer in physics at Hunter College in New York City.