All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

Vouchers: Politically Correct Money

Vouchers Create the Illusion of Parental Authority Without the Substance Thereof

Copyright © 1995. Dr. North is president of The Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas.

The standard argument in favor of school vouchers is that vouchers will restore lost parental authority over their children’s education. This argument reveals a failure to understand the crucial relationship between moral authority, legal authority, and economic authority. It has persuaded a lot of parents to promote a reform that will not only not fulfill its stated goals but will actually undermine some parents’ authority even further.

The debate over vouchers is a debate over authority. One of the fundamental institutional principles is this: without sanctions, there can be no authority. Authority without sanctions is merely opinion.

This leads us to the question of sanctions. There are two kinds of sanctions: positive and negative. Generically, they are known as the carrot and the stick: rewards and punishments. Through the imposition of appropriate sanctions, those in authority maintain their authority.

When we ask, “Who’s in charge here?” we are seeking the locus of final institutional authority. The locus of authority is discovered in two ways: (1) identifying the source of law in a system; (2) identifying the nature of the system’s sanctions. No matter who is said to be sovereign in a system, if he cannot change the law and impose the sanctions, he is not sovereign.

A Debate Over Morality

The debate over vouchers is ultimately a debate over moral authority. This is more often admitted by proponents of vouchers than by defenders of the present system of school finance. But the proponents of vouchers have generally failed to extend their moral inquiry beyond the question of parental choice. They have not asked the far more fundamental question: What is the source of the funding, i.e., the source of the sanctions?

Whenever we seek to resolve a conflict between moral positions embodied in rival systems of authority, we should at some point examine the sanctions of the respective systems. We should ask two questions. First, do the system’s sanctions violate the moral principle that the sanctions are said to defend? Second, do these sanctions violate an even more fundamental moral principle? Sanctions that are inconsistent with either principle should be abandoned.

In the continuing debate over education, the proposed institutional solutions offered by all sides have only rarely been examined in terms of the question of the appropriateness of sanctions. Because of the confusion over sanctions, there is a remarkable degree of attention to what are secondary aspects of the debate. The debate is easily sidetracked down dead ends. One of the most popular of these dead ends is the debate over the performance of teachers. To reverse a political campaign slogan of some years back, the real debate is not about competence; it is about principle. But this is not readily understood by the public.

To see how the debate can get sidetracked, let us consider a familiar aspect of modern education: busy work. To understand why it exists, we need to consider the present system of sanctions in taxpayer-funded education.

Busy Work

Back in the early 1950s, when I was a student in junior high school, “busy work” was a phrase used by educators to describe intellectually useless work that teachers would assign in order to fill up the day. For example, by keeping students busy copying printed materials, teachers could escape the burden of teaching. Senior educators admitted that busy work is a bad thing: uncreative pedagogy. Those classroom teachers who agreed with this assessment defined busy work as the kind of work which somebody else assigned.

The most graphic portrayal of busy work that I have ever seen was in the movie Teachers, in which one utterly incompetent high school teacher, known to his peers as “Ditto”—from the ditto machine-died during one class period while reading the newspaper at his desk, and his students did not know he had passed away until several class periods later. His peers had no respect for him, yet he remained on the faculty until the day he died.

On the whole, I do not remember being assigned busy work very often, although this may be due to my fading memory or, possibly, to the forgettable nature of the assignments. But there is no doubt that my peers and I recognized busy work when we saw it, and we resented it. We knew that the teacher who assigned busy work was evading his responsibilities at our expense. He was being paid to teach us, but he was doing little more than serving as a sort of caretaker. It did not take a college degree to serve as a caretaker.

I had a friend in theological seminary who had been the victim of busy work prior to his high school days. He had grown up in Harlem. He spoke of one teacher who had filled the room’s blackboards each day with mindless materials, and had then told each class to copy all of it. My friend had no doubt that the teachers who had adopted such teaching methods had given up on their students. He had escaped this mind-numbing educational system only by taking a test and getting into Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s three advanced placement high schools.

What had gone wrong with the system? From the point of view of the better students, everything. From the point of view of the system, nothing. It was performing exactly as designed, though of course not as promised and publicly defended.

First, teachers had lost faith in the abilities of their students to learn very much. Because they did not believe that their students could perform well, the teachers had ceased to perform well. In a sense, the teachers mimicked their mediocre students. It was a downward spiral: bad teaching, poor student responses, more bad teaching. The system of classroom sanctions was perverse. The students punished bad teaching with negative sanctions, but these negative sanctions made things worse.

Outside the classroom, the system of sanctions also produced a downward spiral. Parents did not know, did not care, or did not possess sufficient authority to change the system. They did not impose meaningful sanctions on the bureaucrats who ran the schools. Next, the taxpaying public could not easily police what went on inside those classrooms. Meanwhile, local school administrators had no economic or other institutional incentive to take the trouble to get the busy work teachers to change. Finally, the teachers were protected by the teachers’ union, which made it difficult to fire incompetents.

The Common Denominator: Ineffective Sanctions

What had gone wrong was the result of a consistent application of the existing system of sanctions. First, the worst teachers, knowing that poor student performance would reflect badly on their teaching ability, did their best to avoid testing their students’ performance on a day by day basis. Besides, tests take time to administer and grade. No one required them to do this on a regular basis. They simply assumed that their students could not learn much. My friend was told that he was not intellectually capable of getting into Stuyvesant, and the school’s counselor refused to administer the entrance exam. Only when my friend’s father intervened and demanded that he be allowed to take the exam was he able to get in. My friend’s father imposed direct, personal sanctions: threats. As for my friend’s intellectual capacity, he began teaching himself Latin in junior high school. This meant nothing to his counselor.

Second, most parents had no authority over the teachers because local school attendance was compulsory. They could not send their children to another school. They could not impose the negative sanction known as “voting with your feet.”

Third, parents did not pay for their children’s education. The schools were tuition-free. Some parents did not demand much because the schools did not cost them anything. Perhaps they had suffered through a similar educational experience. In Harlem in the early 1950s, parents had little experience in organizing, especially those who had come up from the South. With neither the sanction of money nor the sanction of politics, they were easily ignored by teachers and the bureaucrats who employed them without policing them.

Fourth, most New York City taxpayers were not residents of Harlem. They did not see what was going on. In any case, they had very little authority over the allocation of educational revenues. The education bureaucrats had long since become sovereign over the funds collected from the taxpayers.

He who pays the piper calls the tune in free market transactions, but when the threat of coercion undergirds the collection of funds, the primary goal of the tune-players is to insulate themselves from the tune-callers. This is done through political mobilization, but more importantly, through layers of bureaucracy between the politicians who collect and allocate the funds and the actual distribution of the funds. The more successful the bureaucracy, the more the politicians become the agents of the bureaucracy rather than agents of the voters.

Fifth, for the local school’s administrators to admit that they had a problem with certain teachers would be to admit that they had failed in screening out incompetent employees. The longer the incompetents stay on the payroll, the more difficult it is for any bureaucrat to fire them. The question is: “Why did you wait so long?” This question itself calls into question the good judgment of the bureaucrats. The rule of academia is the rule of every bureaucracy: hire mediocre people who are neither so incompetent that they will call into question the screening abilities of those who hired them nor so competent that they will expose their peers as incompetents. The lowest common denominator gets progressively lower as time passes unless the bureaucrats are threatened with budget cuts: negative sanctions.

Sixth, the teachers’ union was able to keep out of the legal workplace all those prospective teachers who were willing to work but who had not joined the union. The union was able to maintain its authority in much the same way as the school administrators did: through the coercive power of the State. The union had negotiated contracts that had transferred much of the screening process to the union. It had negotiated this contract because the local school board was compelled by state and federal law to negotiate with the union “in good faith,” meaning that the board could not fill the empty positions with non-union teachers.

The result was a loss of faith: by the teachers in their students; by the students in their teachers; by the parents in the educational system; by the administrators in the good judgment of the parents; and by the union in the administrators. In more recent years a new factor has been added: the loss of faith by the voters in the politicians.

At each level, the central factor was sanctions. By politicizing education, the voters consented to a system that rewards those educational bureaucrats who can devise ways to insulate their careers and their performance from the negative sanctions of the voters as well as the consumers, i.e., the parents who have legal authority over their children. The positive sanction of money (paychecks) continues; the negative sanction of parental wrath is deflected. The chief losers are the students.

Vouchers as Economic Sanctions

Will vouchers reduce busy work? Probably. But is this all that needs to be changed? Let us consider how the voucher system is said by its defenders to work. The parent will be given a voucher worth a specific amount of public tax money. This voucher will serve as a sanction: positive for the school that enrolls the student; negative for the school that loses the student.

The question still remains: Who holds the hammer? Who really administers the sanctions? The parent? Only as an intermediary, not as the source of the system’s sanctions. The State grants to the parent the right to make a choice among those local schools that meet the State’s standards, whether formal or ethical. For example, no politician in the New York City school system is going to vote for a system of vouchers that will enable parents to send their children to private schools that teach the innate inferiority of minorities—at least not those minorities that constitute powerful voting blocs in New York City. An Academy of the White Aryan Brotherhood is not going to become eligible to receive vouchers. Count on it. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court will block the use of public funds in schools that do not meet the tests of secular education or that do not conform to the prevailing criteria of racial and sexual equality. We have already seen this in the Grove City College case and the Bob Jones University case.

The coercive power of civil government restricts the ability of buyers (parents) and sellers (teachers) to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. The civil government controls the licensing of teachers. They must be graduates of State-accredited institutions. Furthermore, the federal government controls the negotiation process through restrictions established by the National Labor Relations Board. Trade unions, which include the teachers’ unions, are granted certain immunities from free market forces. The State restricts non-union sellers of labor services from making unrestricted bids to buyers.

The sanctioning power embodied in an educational voucher does not originate with the parent. It originates with the political order and must be exercised within the framework established by that political order. The voucher is in fact a potential sanctioning device over all education, taxpayer-funded and parent-funded, that will be used by politicians to placate certain voting blocs at the expense of others. Voucher-using parents will become economic intermediaries positioned in between local schools and the politicians. But the ultimate authority over education will not change: in the hands of the voters and their agents, not parents and their agents. The voucher will increase the authority of parents over those schools that are eligible to receive vouchers, but this increase in authority will be restricted by law. In short, the voucher system creates the illusion of parental authority without the substance thereof.

Vouchers will become negative sanctions against those schools that teach ideas contrary to the prevailing political correctness or that adopt teaching methods contrary to the prevailing educational correctness. Schools that might have attracted parents who were previously willing to pull their children out of a system of no-parental-choice government education will find that the voucher system has in fact empowered the prevailing orthodoxy. These schools’ market will shrink, as parents take their vouchers and their children to State-approved schools where the vouchers serve as currency. Parents will be tempted by the limited choice offered by “free” vouchers. Many parents will forgo the far greater educational freedom offered today by judicially unencumbered money.

Ideology Replaces Busy Work

I have previously defined “busy work” as intellectually useless work that teachers assign in order to fill up the day. The voucher system will have a tendency to reduce the quantity of busy work assigned. The least competent teachers will be replaced. But this does not solve the problem of ideology. The parent whose beliefs are at odds with the prevailing educational establishment will discover that busy work assigned by incompetent teachers was less of a threat to his authority, and also to the long-term outlook of his child, than a reformed educational program that self-consciously seeks to change the minds of children. By putting poor teachers under pressure, or perhaps even getting them fired for lack of student enrollment, the voucher’s sanctioning authority will surely increase the efficiency of the taxpayer-funded school system to impart the prevailing politically correct ideology to a generation of students.

There are some parents who are not persuaded that education can ever become religiously neutral, politically neutral, or any other kind of neutral. Education is always a method of picking and choosing among competing ideas. It is therefore possible to censor ideas by gaining control over the educational system and not allowing any discussion of certain ideas. Lester Frank Ward, who provided American Progressives with their sociological worldview,[1] presented this strategy of institutional infiltration through ideological filtration as early as 1883. “Instill progressive principles, no matter how, into the mind, and progressive actions will result.”[2] But there is a problem here: the negative reaction against the coercive suppression of ideas. “The attempt to change opinions by direct efforts has been frequently made. No one will deny that coercion applied to this end has been a signal failure.”[3] Then how should progressive people change unprogressive minds who hold unprogressive views? By a systematic program of exclusion and censorship. “The forcible suppression of the utterance or publication in any form of unwelcome opinions is equivalent to withholding from all undetermined minds the evidence upon which such views rest; . . .”[4] Thus, he concluded: “It is simply that true views may as easily be created by this method of exclusion as false ones, which latter is the point of view from which this fact is regarded. The more or less arbitrary exclusion of error, i.e., of false data, is to a great degree justifiable…. This, however, is the essence of what is here meant by education, which may be regarded as a systematic process for the manufacture of correct opinions.”[5]

Ward had two great hatreds: the free market social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and conservative Christianity. Neither perspective is taught in any government school textbook today. Ward’s idea-screening process has obviously worked well.

Vouchers will no doubt decrease the amount of busy work assigned to children, but they will not increase the range of what Ward called “correct opinions.” Vouchers will in fact reduce the range of available opinions by reducing the present demand for private education which is outside the existing taxpayer-funded educational establishment. Vouchers will place into the hands of this entrenched establishment the economic sanction necessary to reduce the income of counter-establishment private schools.

We like to say, “You get what you pay for.” But if you are not allowed by civil law to pay for something, you probably will not get it. Vouchers—politically correct money—place in the hands of the educational establishment the authority to certify those institutions where voucher-holders will be allowed to spend their politically encumbered money.

Cutting Straight

A voucher is like a tool used to sharpen a circular saw that is set at an incorrect angle. The tool can make the blade cut smoother, but it cannot make it cut straight. If people who really want a straight-cutting saw waste their time sharpening a crooked one, and by doing neglect to hire skilled saw-straighteners, the sharpening tool is a liability.

A voucher is not a neutral tool that is useful in meeting the objectives of every parent’s educational goals for his child. A voucher is a morally biased sanction. It rests on a presupposition: the State is sovereign over education, not parents. This presupposition leads to a series of conclusions. First, the taxpayer’s sovereignty over his property must be sacrificed on the altar of State sovereignty. Second, the parent’s range of choices must be limited–not by a law formally outlawing competing schools, but by restricting eligibility for reimbursement through vouchers. Third, the voucher-using parent is legitimately made an accomplice of the State in the coercive transfer of funds from the taxpayer to the educational establishment by way of the parent. This tends to reduce the parent’s moral authority to challenge the educational establishment.

The parent, as a beneficiary of the wealth-transfer system, is tempted by the offer of “free,” politically correct money to regard the coercive wealth transfer as morally valid. He is less willing to re-think the initial presupposition: the sovereignty of the State over education. He is willing to transfer the lion’s share of his original authority–the authority to define the range of acceptable educational opinion—to the educational establishment. Just like that saw, he begins by thinking crooked. He is therefore less likely to demand that a different moral perspective be taught to his children. It would be naive on his part to imagine that the recipients of public funds for education will make it their first priority to challenge the moral validity of the use of State coercion to raise funds from the general public for the support of education.

The focus of the debate over vouchers has been on the sharpening process, not on setting the correct angle—correct as defined by the parent. The debate has, on the surface, been technical: how to deliver a superior educational product to children. But the prevailing definition of “superior education” has neglected the moral component of education. Specifically, it has ignored the question of the moral foundation of a system that uses force to achieve a positive goal: the education of children. We must never forget that the positive sanction of public education is funded through the imposition of negative sanctions: the confiscation of private property.

How straight can this blade cut? If all education rests on moral foundations, then how can a moral universe that denies the legitimacy of the use of force to achieve our personal goals be taught to successive generations by schools funded by such force? If the blade is set at an angle, how can it ever cut straight? Only if those in authority over it adjust the blade. If the moral blade is set at an angle, how can we ever learn to think straight? Only by re-thinking our morality. But who will help us to re-think our morality if our goals (education) and their goals (employment) are funded immorally?

Bribing a Prophet

The biblical prophet’s job was to stand up for the truth. His walk had to match his talk. This was not always easy. If the enemies of truth could offer the prophet a bribe, even a concealed bribe, they could deflect the prophet’s walk.

He who would reform any system is acting prophetically. He is coming before some establishment with this message: “The present way of doing things is wrong, not just technically but morally. It is time to abandon evil ways of doing things, which ultimately rest on evil notions of right and wrong. It is time to restructure our moral outlook. This will require the restructuring of existing sanctions–rewards and punishments—which promote the present evil system.”

The entrenched establishment can protest the critic’s analysis. But sometimes it is easier just to buy off the critic. If the establishment can persuade the critic to become a beneficiary of the present system, this will reduce the public impact of his message.

The biblical prophet had to be alert to the presence of a bribe. If someone in authority was offering him a personal incentive for no good reason, that person was up to no good. The prophet had to examine the gift as if it were bait on a hook; otherwise, he could be snared.

The bait may look safe at first. The hook may not be visible. The mark of a prophet was his ability to see through the gift to the underlying motive. Abram rejected a gift from the king of Sodom after Abram’s victory over the invading Chedorlaomer. He said, “That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich” (Genesis 14:23). Abram’s implicit argument was simple: If God is totally sovereign in history, then He must get all of the glory. If God is totally sovereign, then Abram must receive all of his rewards from God. God is totally sovereign; therefore, Abram concluded, he would accept no reward from the king of Sodom and, by implication, the gods of Sodom. The gift was bait; bad theology was the hook. Abram did not take the bait.

Today, there are millions of parents who have, on principle, pulled their children out of the taxpayer-funded educational system. They have done so in the name of a principle. But which principle? That is the question. Is it parental authority over education? Fine; this is a morally correct principle, which is why it is politically incorrect today. But remember: without sanctions, there is no authority; there is only opinion. The educational establishment denies this principle of parental authority. It asserts the State’s authority over education. The State can impose negative sanctions on parents who refuse to adhere to this principle: compulsory education, teacher licensing, and taxation.

If these negative sanctions weaken or no longer persuade millions of parents, then there is a fall-back position available: positive sanctions. The voucher system is such a positive sanction, one that is far less threatening to the existing educational bureaucracy than an outright tax credit for each child in an accredited school. Ultimately, though, even the educational tax credit is bait, for such credits will only be allowed to parents whose children are in State-approved schools. Parents who send their children to politically incorrect schools will not be eligible.

This is a terrible evil of taxpayer-funded education. It creates a moral dilemma and an institutional threat to parents who are opposed to taxpayer-funded education because: (1) taxpayer funding violates the principle of non-coercive exchange; (2) taxpayer funding violates the principle of parental authority over education. Parents must oppose on principle the most attractive political hook of all: a tax credit–something that seems to decrease the State’s authority, when in fact it increases the State’s authority over education. It takes a tremendous act of will to resist such a large piece of bait.

The Locus of Authority

A standard phrase in the private school movement is this one: “Parents have authority over their own children’s education.” The statement rests on an assumption: the parent’s legal status confers legal responsibility over the children.

So much for the assertion. Let us look at the sanctions. We must do this in order to identify the true locus of authority. Where does the parent obtain the funds to educate his children? From his own productivity? From money given to him by others? In short, from assets legally owned by him? Then he is economically sovereign over his children’s education. There is consistency here: legal sovereignty and economic sovereignty match. He provides educational services for his children using resources legally in his possession. He awards positive sanctions (income) on some, thereby imposing negative sanctions (losses) on others. By giving the carrot to one school, he removes it from the others.

Any tampering with this system of sanctions necessarily transfers authority over education. The source of the sanctions is the locus of authority. If the State provides the sanctions through coercion, then the State is the locus of authority. Any attempt to disguise this locus of authority is an attempt to confuse the legal issue, which is ultimately a moral issue.

This is why the debate over vouchers has created so much confusion. It has clouded the moral issue because it has clouded the legal issue. The moral issue is the identification of the proper locus of authority. Vouchers inevitably retain the sanctioning authority in the hands of the State, which is the source of the funding. Those who defend vouchers may seek to evade the implications of their position, but those who are serious about retaining parental authority over education must not have their attention deflected. Follow the money. If the trail leads to the State, then so must the locus of authority.

Any argument based on the ideal of parental authority is undermined by vouchers. Those who defend the use of vouchers should, as a matter of moral principle, cease to invoke the argument of parental authority. They should publicly affirm the legitimacy of the State’s authority over education, with parents serving merely as intermediaries who will decide which State-approved teachers and State-approved schools that teach a State-approved curriculum will prosper.


Earlier, I wrote: “Whenever we seek to resolve a conflict between moral positions, we must at some point examine the respective systems of sanctions. We must ask two questions. First, does the system of sanctions violate the moral principle that the sanctions are said to defend? Second, do the sanctions violate an even more fundamental system of morality?”

The popular defense of vouchers, based on the ideal of parental authority, violates the first principle. Only if the defender of vouchers forthrightly presents his recommendation as a means of strengthening the State’s control over private education would the argument for vouchers be consistent.

Second, do the sanctions violate a more fundamental moral principle? The answer here is yes: the principle that the State is not to serve as an agency of positive sanctions. The State gains access to the wealth required to grant positive sanctions only by imposing negative sanctions on taxpayers. The State should lawfully impose negative sanctions only against those who have used violence or fraud to achieve their goals. The State’s goal is the securing of justice through the imposition of negative sanctions, not the granting of rewards at the expense of the judicially innocent. The State must not be trusted with positive sanctions.

Vouchers violate both principles. They are a form of politically correct money. They are bribes. People who oppose today’s politically correct use of coercion in order to fund education should oppose the idea of vouchers, tax credits for education, and every other piece of bait that the State offers. It is time to start cutting straight.

1.   Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880′s (New Haven, Conn.; Yale University Press, 1950), ch. 12.

2.   Ustcr Frank Ward, Dynamic Sociology; or Applied Social Science, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, [1883] 1907), II:547.

3.   Ibid.

4.   Ibid.

5.   Ibid, p. 548.

  • Dr. North is president of The Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas. He was FEE’s director of seminars in the early 1970s and has served as a member of the board of trustees.