All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1972

Vouchers: Government Control of Private Schools?

Mr. Cahill of Lakewood, California, plans to enter Law School in the fall. The scheme is designed to work this way: The level of government which has enacted the program will present to the parents of each child of school age a voucher representing an agreed upon amount of money; the parent will present this voucher as tuition to the school, public or private, where the child is enrolled; the school in turn will take this voucher to the proper government agency, where it will be cashed. (For more information on vouchers, see “School Vouchers Give Parents More Choice in Education.”)

I feel rather like the man in the science fiction novel, who has stumbled upon a great horror and is not believed until it is nearly too late. I have sixteen years of private education under my hat and wish the private schools of America nothing but prosperity.

So how can I be against the “voucher” system? Do I not realize that this system is designed to save the failing private schools and provide them with the needed financial assistance; that it is designed to promote the greatest amount of freedom of choice for the parent regarding the education of his children?

I know what it is designed to do. And I know that what it is designed to do and what it may in fact do, are not necessarily synonymous.

It is alleged that in this way everyone will be satisfied and freedom of choice will be preserved. Parents are happy; they may now send their children to whatever school they choose with no anxious thought for expenses. The private schools are happy; they will prosper and grow through the influx of new students and their vouchers. Religious schools are happy; they may now take advantage of the government largesse, and (as it is the parent that is helped directly and not the school) the Supreme Court is not offended. The parish school will once more flourish throughout the land. Right?

Principles and Facts Ignored

Well, perhaps. And perhaps not. As a “conservative” program of action, the voucher system ignores some basic principles and obvious facts.

1. The unwillingness or inability of the users to continue to pay the tuition and operating costs of the private schools is one reason that they are in need of financial assistance.

2. This inability to pay is in no small part brought about by increased taxes and inflation caused by increased government deficit spending.

3. No one can give what he does not have. If the government is going to pay the expenses of all the children in private schools in addition to those in public schools, it must find a source for the additional funds that will be needed.

4. The government has two sources for these funds: increased taxes or further inflated currency.

Not to be forgotten are the additional hundreds of highly paid bureaucrats who will be needed to administer such a program. The result will hardly be the great triumph of justice which is predicted:

·         The taxes of everyone who pays school taxes will increase.

·         Some of these taxpayers will now receive a return for their money which they did not receive in pre-voucher days.

·         Those with children in the public schools will be forced to pay increased taxes with no increased return.

·         Those with no children in any school will pay increased taxes and continue to receive nothing in return.

How anyone could think that confusion and injustice will be anything but compounded with the implementation of this scheme, I do not know. But let us face the issue squarely: there are few today who will permit themselves the thought that feeding from the public trough is other than a virtuous act. Nevertheless, there are other arguments which may hit home where economic and moral ones have missed the mark.

We live in an age in which government, at all levels, is anything but disinterested. The bureaus and agencies of government are peopled with men beset with the meddling urge as never before in history. Money distributed by the government has seldom had more strings attached than now. Busing to achieve racial balance in the public schools is a good example.

The voucher scheme cries out to be used as an indirect licensing system for the private schools. There are already hints in the press that certain modifications” and “safeguards” will have to be introduced into the program if it is passed. Private schools, for instance, that maintain a racial imbalance will not be able to cash their vouchers.

Some Perturbing Questions

There are other points upon which private, especially religious, schools might do well to meditate. Would a school be permitted to cash vouchers if that school promoted teachings contrary to the government policy, such as artificial birth prevention or abortion? Could a school with an “inadequate” sex-education program cash vouchers? Given the temper of the times, one would think that “accreditation” for participation would not come cheaply.

How could the bureaucrat think that it was other than his duty to “protect” the parent and child from the “misuse” of their new found freedom in a “below standard” school? May a school be dropped from the program because its graduates are untrained in sensitivity?

These thoughts must not be overlooked. They are discussed every day in the educational establishments, whether public or private. To think that they will not be considered by the agencies administering such a program is naive. After all, someone must administer the program and it must be administered according to someone’s norms; why not the ones prevailing in the educational establishments? When one considers the intellectual and bureaucratic environment, the voucher system does not augur well for the private schools. In the main, it will serve to make them less private.

Let us suppose that a school’s administration elects to stay out of the program or, having been in for a while, discovers restrictions that it cannot tolerate and decides to withdraw. In the first case, those who elect to stay out of the program will not be relieved of the burden of financing it. And the ostensible intent of the scheme is to aid those who are not now partakers of the public moneys. The second case seems highly unlikely. A school would have to be very wealthy indeed to survive if it were to reject its prevailing source of regular income, the government. A school which had grown dependent on the program could be dealt a mortal blow if it withdrew or was expelled from the program. How many parents would continue sending their children if the “free” tuition vouchers from the government were rendered worthless at this school, especially in the face of higher taxation to support the other private schools on the program?

Survival through Competition

But what of the private schools themselves? Won’t they die out without some sort of government assistance?

Good schools will not die out. There is more to the plight of the private school than the ability of the user to pay. Willingness is a major factor. When the religious school is “secularized” or the denominational or other private school loses its tradition and becomes, in essence, no different than the public school, the sacrifice that a man must make to “pay twice” for his child’s education loses all reason. Why should a man who is forced to support the public school system pay again for a private school education if the product is like that of the public school?

A return to the first principles of their founders may not save private schools. But it is a first step, and a giant one, in the right direction. The voucher system is a step backward and downward into the mire of government control of all aspects of our lives.

The man who is truly interested in quality education will look first to principles of freedom and honor. He may check the government schools to see if education based on compulsion in attendance and support can truly inculcate these principles. And then he must decide whether the voucher system increases freedom and yields an education based on principle or whether it leads to dependence on government, government control of our lives, and education based on force.



Educational Responsibility

The parent can and should look beyond himself for specialized help in a proper education of his child, but neither parent nor teacher should be confused about the parent’s ultimate responsibility or the proper role of the school in the upbringing of the young. Unfortunately, such distinctions have blurred in our society. The growth of the public school system has been more than matched by a bureaucracy to regulate its working.

GEORGE ROCHE III, Education in America