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Perhaps the most divisive political topic in Utah over the past few months has been the issue of state-sponsored educational vouchers. Lawmakers, organizations, reporters, and bloggers have all been sounding off in an attempt to sway voters to their side. In the commotion, facts have been glossed over, propaganda has been hyped up, money has been thrown at advertising both sides, and people on both sides have dug in their heels for the upcoming battle at the ballot in November.
But which side is right? Should Utahns pass the voucher bill this fall or not?
The basic facts of the voucher program are as follows:
- Under this program, Utah families would receive anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per year per child to subsidize private school tuition. The amount depends on the family’s income.
- For each child who leaves the public school system, the public school that child would normally attend would still receive funds (“mitigation money”) for that child for the next five years (unless he/she graduates or returns to public school).
- Private schools wishing to accept voucher money must meet certain requirements established by state law and apply to the Utah State Office of Education for eligibility.
The basic arguments are as follows:
- For: Those favoring the vouchers claim that the voucher program would allow parents to have more choice in education, using the money to help fund tuition for their children in a private school.
- Against: Those opposing the vouchers say that they waste state funds, divert money from public schools, and mix state government with private entities through subsidies and oversight.
So again, who is right? Surely this isn’t just a matter of public opinion; are there principles to be observed in this debacle upon which we may make a correct decision?
A moral case for vouchers
Back in April there was an opinion piece in the Daily Herald titled “The moral case for vouchers”. The premise was that the government has every right to use public funds for private endeavors. The author demonstrated how opponents of the vouchers errantly believe that the public educational system is to have exclusive rights in receiving money for education:
That money is committed whether the public purpose is accomplished by public or private means. The only thing that should matter to taxpayers is that the purpose is accomplished.
Voucher opponents, though, would have you believe that the state has no obligation to fund anything but a public system. We disagree. There is no case, for example, that private schools have failed to accomplish the public purpose of educating students. If anything, they have proved themselves superior to the public system.
The moral case for vouchers exists in the fact that the money ultimately belongs to “We the People”. It is, then, immoral for bureaucrats to sponsor one child at the expense of another, or grant funds to one educational entity while denying it to another. Granted, there are many factors involved in determining how and to whom the funds should be allocated, but the simple fact exists that we the taxpayers fund the education of our children. Demanding that one family fund the education of your child while also paying private school tuition for his own is absurd, and accurately reflects the socialist mentality that many have.
NEA vs. the children
One argument made by the voucher’s opponents is that it’s not “in the children’s best interests”. The argument relies on the assumption that your child will receive a better education in public school—from “professionals” with “accountability”—than they will in another system. Thus, a vote for vouchers is a vote against a child’s interests.
Who is it that dares to assume what the interests are of every child in Utah (or in the nation)? It is none other than the National Education Association, that bastion of liberalism disguised in a “we’re fighting for you!” cloak. This is, after all, the organization that
gave away more than $65 million last year to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Amnesty International, AIDS Walk Washington and dozens of other such advocacy groups… (via)
The biggest financial backer of the anti-voucher camp is the largest educational labor union in the nation. Anxious to keep their strangehold on public schools in Utah, the NEA described on their website in March the oh-so-noble attempts of certain organizations to rally together and raise funds to “counter the deep pockets” of those favoring the vouchers:
The Salt Lake Tribune reported on March 2, “Other referendum sponsors include a former legislator and leaders of the Utah PTA, the Utah State Board of Education, the Utah School Boards Association and the NAACP.”
According to the newspaper, “The petitioners hope the long arms of these groups will be able to counter the deep pockets of Parents for Choice in Education, which sank roughly $500,000 into political campaigns for voucher supporters last year.”
What NEA doesn’t want you to know is that they themselves have now donated at least $1.5 million towards the anti-voucher cause, overshadowing the “roughly $500,000” drop in the bucket they had commented upon.
Hypocrisy? Deceptive scheming? Who knows. The voucher’s opposition boils down to one element: unionism. Consisting entirely of economic bullyism, labor unions use their might to suppress opposition (as the NEA has done repeatedly in several states). A sure-tell sign of any monopoly is its active role in beating down any attempt at competition or mindshare.
And so while the anti-voucher crowd claims to be fighting “for the children’s best interest”, it’s entirely evident using the basic journalistic approach of “following the money” that the real interests are those of the NEA and its sister organizations (including the Utah Education Association).
Another argument against vouchers is that private schools “will not be held accountable” to the same standards that the public schools are. I would argue that not being held accountable to follow certain government policies is actually quite beneficial to the education of our children!
The most important part of the “accountability” argument is determining who is accountable for what to whom?
Because of unions, public school teachers enjoy quite a bit of job security. Private school teachers, like most of the private job sector, have to perform on the job in order to retain employment. They indeed are held accountable for their actions, for if they perform poorly, they are let go. Public school teachers, however, are hardly held accountable for their performance, thus lowering the bar on teacher quality and excellence, despite any diplomas or schooling to the contrary.
But what are the teachers accountable for? For the grades their students receive? For their adherence to a predetermined curriculum? Rather, in the public education system it is the school itself that is supposedly accountable—to the government—for its actions. The problem with this situation is that systems and organizations can never have accountability—only individuals can.
Public schools are mainly held accountable in assuring that they spend tax dollars in accordance with laws and guidelines produced by the state legislature, the Office of Education, and their local school district.
Really, they’re only accountable to making sure that they spend tax dollars in accordance to guidelines produced by the Legislature, the state office of education, and their local school district.
Voucher opponents might argue that schools are held accountable through test scores and achievement benchmarks. The main problem with a numbers-based accountability system is that the numbers can be manipulated. Whether through intentional manipulation or the lowering of the standards to boost the favorable numbers, the effect is the same. Statistics regarding the education of your child mean very little.
Lastly, to whom are the schools accountable? In our public educational system, the schools report to their districts, the state legislature, and the Office of Education. In other words, the schools are not accountable to the parents. One might argue that parents can run for the school board and hence make their voice heard, but this is a petty argument since there is very little representation. Conversely, private schools are entirely and directly accountable to the parents, the chief deciders regarding the education of their child. The Utah Rattler summed up this fact quite eloquently:
The anti-voucher side is well funded by the NEA (National Education Association), and has blown some of the money on ads trying to tell people that private schools are not accountable. Implicit in the ads, however, is that the NEA and anti-voucher groups do not believe that parents have the sense to place their children in the most appropriate school. They indicate that parents are incapable of making the right decision for their child.
Further, if the private school fails to satisfy the parents, what will happen? Tough accountability – the money and child shift to another school (public or private). The school will know they failed when they see the “pay cut” and poor performing private schools will, ultimately, go belly up.
Additionally, most private schools participate in accreditation programs as well as auditing procedures. Again, parents are not going to blindly and stupidly shove their kids in any old school to use a voucher, especially when they are still going to have to sacrifice and pony-up some money themselves. Parents, in my estimation, are the best accreditor and auditor of their child’s eduction. The first hand view of their child’s educational progress/results trumps any auditor’s matrix or spreadsheet.
Long story short – I place my trust in parents knowing what is best for their individual children, not me, nor government entities or professional organizations based in Salt Lake City or Washington DC.
For far too long parents have embraced the tendency to delegate their responsibility to educate their children, assigning such duties to “professionals” who determine what and how and when your children should learn. The NEA and its anti-voucher affiliates think that parents are complete morons who are unable to intelligently decide what school their child should attend, and why. I hope they are not right.
Lack of competition leads to lack of innovation
The public sector feels no such pressure to innovate or provide a good service because they are shielded from the economic effects of providing a poor product. For years they have provided a product ever lessening in quality and asking for more money to solve the problem.
The mere existence of vouchers and the school choice movement is creating some political pressure to change the public school system. This is all for the good.
This is evolution. Change or die.
Regardless of your background or opinion, this is a true statement. Programs protected and guaranteed by legislation and government funding feel no impetus to excel nor reason to improve. Whereas mistakes in the private sector are swiftly punished through consumer action, those committed by government-backed institutions (in this case, public schools) are excused, subsidized, or ignored.
Imagine a world where Microsoft held a true monopoly and competition was prohibited. Would they have any reason to improve their product? Would there exist any competitors (such as Apple) from whom they could steal ideas and seek inspiration? Would they fear losing your business if it was mandated that you buy their product?
As noted above, monopolies (whether true monopolies or partial ones) fear losing power, and will actively labor to suppress competition. As Lord Acton once noted, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In a free market, businesses (including private schools) constantly feel the exigency to excel. If they don’t, somebody else will come along and beat them at their own game, thus taking away their business as the customers will be free to come and go as they see fit. But when the government mandates where you should go, how you should spend your money, and makes it very difficult to choose otherwise, the consumer will throw up their hands in frustration and simply do what is easiest.
The benefit of choice
The importance of choice—a primary element in a free market—cannot be overemphasized. An efficient educational system would be one where schools compete for children, not the other way around. Were parents to have the same economic incentive to put their child in a private school as they do a public one, one wonders what leaps and bounds of progress the public school system would make. Instead, they lay idle, coddled by the arm of police power to enforce enrollment and enjoying the economic security of the state and national coffers.
Parents are often prone to blame the current system for failures and shortcomings. They feel they have little option in schooling their children, for it is in many cases too cost prohibitive to pay for private school tuition while still funding the education of their neighbors’ children. But if the system were imbued with competition, and the parents given absolute choice, the blame for a broken system would lay squarely at the parents’ feet, for they chose to willingly participate in that school.
Choice leads to stewardship, and stewardship leads to true accountability. Parents must be given absolute choice regarding the education of their children. Thus, the government should enable parents to have the necessary resources at their disposal to choose the education that they themselves feel is best suited for their own children.
Diversity and central planning
Like herders grouping everybody into one collective, anti-voucher groups demand that public school is the best system of education for children in America. If they had it their way, all children would conform to this system, whose educational standards and policies are dictated by an elite few.
The problem here is that a public school system will never speak to the needs of all of Utah’s children. Ever. One size never fits all. This is the beauty of the Constitution—power was pulled down from a central executive wherever possible, with the understanding that power is best controlled, disseminated, and implemented at a local level, where it can be customized and differentiated based on the needs and desires of the community.
Centralized planning does not work. Why should Utah children be educated the exact same way as children in Alabama? Who is to say that there is one right system for everybody? Does public schooling hold a monopoly on truth and efficiency?
Different children have different needs, desires, and educational interests. Central planning and uniform education standards will never adequately satisfy the needs of individual children of differing abilities and interests.
Propaganda suppresses facts
Both sides of the voucher issue have been heavily advertising their stance, primarily using brief bullet points and vague sound bytes to state their case. Some examples of commercials being used by both camps can be found here:
Obscuring facts and guiding the minds of voters is part and parcel of propaganda. Edward Bernays, father of modern propaganda, once noted:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate the organized habits and opinions of the masses constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of the country….It remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons….It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.
Potential voters who base their opinions and decisions on commercials and advertisements of either camp do a disservice not only to themselves but to our children. On an issue as important as this, one would hope that parents would ignore the media blitz from either side and seriously ponder the legitimate arguments being made by those both for and against vouchers.
Whose money is it?
The Daily Herald article above addresses the question regarding just whose money is being used for our children’s education:
Whose money is it? Or, put another way, do tax dollars properly adhere to the individual student for whom education is compulsory, or does it “belong” to the public school bureaucracy?
Fairness requires that government money follow a student to any institution that can deliver an education at least as good as what the state provides. The logic is simple: Education is a public purpose, and it is compulsory. The state is committed to a dollar value for every child of student age to accomplish that public purpose. If the public purpose that compels compliance can be accomplished through a legal alternative, then refusing to pay for that alternative is inherently unfair. It constitutes a form of theft.
In short, if the state pays for the education of one student, it must pay for all.
It is important, when discussing government funding, to understand that there is no such thing as “government money”. Frederic Bastiat described where the funds originate:
You say: “There are persons who have no money,” and you turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from a source outside the society. Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to send it in. If every person draws from the treasury the amount that he has put in it, it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But this procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of equalization only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the law does this, it is an instrument of plunder.
Parents are being robbed when upon choosing to enroll their child in a private school they are required to fund the education of their neighbors’ children. As the Daily Herald article mentioned, the money should follow the child, regardless of the educational institution chosen by the parents.
The “mitigation money” promised by the current voucher law to schools losing pupils is completely absurd, a waste of taxpayer money, and socialism at its finest. The failure of public schools to attract and retain customers—their pupils, through guardianship of their parents—should not be subsidized and secured through legalized plunder.
Government money equals government intrusion
Whatever the government funds, it regulates. There is no public money given without legislative oversight. By accepting voucher money, private schools will have to meet government requirements. They therefore lose autonomy and must change to comply with the dictates of a governing board with which they were not previously affiliated.
This is another downside of the proposed voucher system: the government dictates what schools parents will be able to choose, based on those that meet its approval. As this Salt Lake Tribune article points out, some private schools are wary of such oversight:
But Challenger schools – a network of 21 schools in four states – will not accept vouchers at six Utah campuses. Its leaders have philosophical concerns with Utah’s law but also worry Utah’s voucher program may lead to increased state and federal oversight of private schools.
“The thing that worries us is over time, government regulators like to regulate more, not less,” said Clint Kirry, Challenger’s Utah marketing manager. “Until we see how it’s gonna shake out, we’re really reticent to accept [vouchers].”
Mr. Kirry is correct, in that regulation will only increase over time.
Vouchers are a good thing, but Utah’s implementation of the voucher system is not without its flaws. While I support vouchers in theory, and will throw my weight behind any measure that provides more choice for parents and less monopoly for public schools and their labor unions, there are certainly drawback to the proposed implementation.