Voucher Schools Should Be Forced to Teach About Liberty – G.C.

GC: Re the Muslim schools: Rather than crafting more and more onerous prohibitions on the teaching of violence and separatism, it seems to me that all schools that agree to take public funds for the delivery of education should be required to teach a course in each grade on the principles of American government, citizenship, and individual liberty — the catechism of American Citizenship. If a school is to take the King's shilling, so to speak, the school must learn to at least appreciate — not subscribe to, but appreciate — the King's principles. The state has a vested interest in nurturing the principles of liberty in the minds of its citizens.

Several comments. First, there is no reason why a state-funded school compelled to teach a class in individual liberty and citizenship could not also teach ideas and incite actions that would be morally objectionable to many American taxpayers. So your suggestion does not in fact address the problem I want us to deal with, namely: how do you minimize the social conflicts that have historically ensued whenever taxpayers have been forced to fund, or to send their children to, schools that violate their convictions? My recommended solution is to virtually eliminate this compulsion, as would be possible under a UETC program. I am aware of no better solution – certainly not vouchers which perpetuate this compulsion.

Second, I consider the course of action you suggest to be a nightmare scenario. It is strongly reminiscent of American socialist pedagogue George Counts’ 1936 manifesto "Dare the School Build a New Social Order." What must be remembered by anyone who wishes to harness schools for ideological purposes is that political administrations come and go. The "education for citizenship" you describe could well be implemented as a requirement by one administration, but then transformed into something you would be appalled by under successive administrations. There is a very bad history associated with state efforts to forcibly shape children’s views through mandatory education programs (see my book Market Education: The Unknown History for examples), and it is nonsensically inconsistent to mandate a course on "liberty."

Tax Credits Abandon Promise of Public Education – G.C.

GC: If I were an opponent of school choice, I would have a field day attacking this approach for "abandoning the promise of public education," "reserving public schools just for rich families," etc., etc. If the education provision in each state constitution is to provide anything, it's public funds for the education of families who can't afford it. You're tossing this out and having the education of the poor depend on the charity of strangers.

Dealing with that argument is important, but it is not worth it to win that rhetorical battle at the cost of advocating a flawed policy that will fail to serve the public’s needs. That would be obviously self-defeating.

I often point out that, empirically speaking, it is government schooling that has abandoned the promise of public education. Conventional government schooling has the largest and most stable funding stream of any school system, and it nevertheless fails disastrously to serve the poor.

Much of my support for UETCs over vouchers and traditional public schooling is specifically due to the fact that, based on the evidence, they would do a better job of serving the poor. Far from short-changing low-income families, the multiplicity of funding sources (SGOs) available to them under a UETC program would be one of the most empowering reforms in history. For the first time, no low-income family would be beholden to a single 3rd party for financial assistance in paying for their children’s education. No government, no powerful private interest, could dictate to the poor what their children could and couldn’t, must and mustn’t learn. For case studies of how both private and government single payer systems have failed to ably serve low-income families, have a look at Market Education and my chapter How Markets Affect Quality in the Cato Institute book Educational Freedom in Urban America.

Don’t Call the Program Universal if it’s not – G.C.

GC: Although I had anticipated you would relax the requirement for co-payment for the poor, I had not anticipated you would exclude wealthy families from participation in voucher programs. This is unjustifiable. Who do you think pays more taxes towards public education? There is such a thing as the Fifth Amendment and the wealthy can rightly expect some just compensation for the confiscation of so much of their property. It seems appropriate to recall the words of John Adams:

"It is agreed that 'the end of all government is the good and ease of the people, in a secure enjoyment of their rights, without oppression;' but it must be remembered, that the rich are people as well as the poor; that they have rights as well as others; that they have as clear and as sacred a right to their large property as others have to theirs which is smaller; that oppression to them is as possible and as wicked as to others; that stealing, robbing, cheating, are the same crimes and sins, whether committed against them or others."

Bottom line: Don't call the program "universal" if it's not.

I see three possible meanings of "justifiability" in this context: practical, legal, and moral. The practical justifiability of excluding the wealthiest families depends on the purpose of the program. If the goal were to provide everyone with a tax-funded school voucher, then, yes, excluding any group would be unjustifiable. If the goal is to ensure that every family has meaningful access to the education market, then excluding the wealthiest families can be justified because they already have meaningful access to the market without vouchers.

My understanding of the American public’s stand on this point is that the goal is to ensure universal access. Furthermore, the evidence points to parent-funded markets, not government-funded pseudo markets, as the most generally effective system of education. I have argued that state funding has inevitably brought with it state regulation, so there is a practical reason to limit public spending to only those cases where it is absolutely required.

Also from a practical standpoint, it isn’t clear how much wealthy families would gain from being eligible to receive vouchers. They would get vouchers during the 12 years their children were in elementary and secondary school, but they would also have to keep paying for the schooling of other wealthy children over their entire taxpaying lives, long after their own children had left school.

On legal grounds, I don’t think the precedents support your view. Single individuals and childless couples receive no direct benefit from public schooling today, but are nevertheless forced to pay taxes to support them. The wealthy pay for food-stamp programs for which they are not eligible. Taxpayers living in the Eastern part of Washington state are compelled to support of the ferry system that serves Puget Sound in Western Washington. If these practices are legal, it is hard to see why a voucher program excluding the wealthiest families would be illegal (unless explicitly forbidden in a state’s constitution, which could of course be the case in some states).

It is on moral grounds, as I acknowledge in Forging Consensus, that the argument for excluding the wealthiest families is weakest. Why should all not benefit equally from a voucher program? I still favor means-testing-out the wealthiest families because of the way I look at public education. I don’t see public education as a particular system or institution, but as a set of ideals that revolve around ensuring universal access to good schools. The purpose, to me, of creating a voucher or UETC program is to extend that access to lower and middle income families, so that all families will be able to participate in the education marketplace. Given the meritocratic nature of American society, I feel it is a moral obligation of all citizens to ensure universal access to basic education. Without it, America would be an unjust country. Since the wealthiest families already have access to the education marketplace, there is no moral obligation to subsidize their schooling.

I realize that others differ on this point, however, and defer to the voters.

Scholarships Are Too Complex and Demeaning – G.C.

GC: The next section seems to set up a really intrusive procedure that is also demeaning. Despite the fact that a free K-12 education is guaranteed to every child, you want low and middle-income families to beg for a scholarship in order to educate their children satisfactorily, and to submit their finances not only to the IRS and State Revenue Department, but to perhaps several scholarship organizations — which also would need some mechanism for verifying the information the families provided. This whole procedure seems unnecessarily complex compared to a voucher solution.

As I stated above, a UETC program would be more empowering to low-income families than any other education system, including both vouchers and traditional public schools. Public schools assume that parents, all parents, are too dumb to choose their own children’s schools, and voucher programs have turned private schools into highly-regulated, homogenized pseudo-government schools over time. UETCs are designed to give low-income parents maximum freedom from coercion by the arrogant elites who have pushed them around for centuries. I present some of the evidence for this view in the paper, and much more is available in Market Education: The Unknown History and in the papers I cite in endnote no. 9.

There’s a Moral Argument for Vouchers – G.C.

GC: There's also a moral argument for using vouchers while there isn't one for tax credits since they don't demand access to existing tax dollars for education.

I don’t follow you. What moral argument for vouchers?

You Ignore Compulsion Under Public Schooling – G.C.

GC: The argument [in the sub-section on Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict] ignores the compulsion that exists in the existing public school system, where all taxpayers are compelled to support a form of legal schooling that offends the personal convictions of many parents with regard to condoms and sexual activity, attitudes towards homosexuality, attitudes towards marriage and out-of-wedlock births, the teaching of secular humanism, the denigration of the United States, the denigration of capitalism, the denigration of competition, the promotion of multiculturalism over American culture, and so on.

Not true. The beginning of this section specifically relates how U.S. public schools have sparked social conflict from their inception, citing the deadly Philadelphia Bible riots. I do focus on the differences between vouchers and tax credits on this point, because that is the express purpose of this section of the document (titled "Vouchers vs. Tax Credits: A Functional Comparison of Optimal Programs"). For anyone interested, I have documented and criticized the social conflict caused by traditional public school systems at greater length in Market Education, and more briefly in a book chapter for the Fraser Institute, available on-line.[1]

Voucher Programs Increase Parental Freedom – G.C.

GC: Voucher programs add religion to that mix but also permit individual families to choose the school that matches their values. Certainly, some citizens may object to funds going to individuals who choose religious schools they do not approve of. If this violates their convictions, then they can seek legislative means to change the law to something they do approve of, as those opposed to abortion have done for many years.

Vouchers do increase the freedom of parents, but, as I ask in Forging Consensus, "Is it right to increase parents’ freedom of choice at the expense of taxpayers’ freedom of conscience?" In particular, why would we do that when an alternative is available (UETCs) that does not compel anyone to support any particular school.

Furthermore, it isn’t just a question of religion. As I point out in the paper, there are numerous instructional and policy practices that might violate the convictions of taxpayers.

Your suggestion that offended citizens attempt to change the law is not a solution, it is a symptom of the problem. In a pluralistic society, it is impossible to have the laws reflect everyone’s deeply held views because those views are often in conflict. All your suggestion would accomplish is to change which subset of the population is the current "winner" in the endless war for control of the schools. Unless we eliminate the compulsion, we cannot eliminate the conflict.

UETCs can virtually, if not totally, eliminate the compulsion. Vouchers cannot.

I Don’t Think Tax Credits Would Serve All Families – G.C.

GC: I don't agree that a Universal Education Tax Credit would meet the goal of serving "the diverse educational needs of all families, not selective subsets of the population, while preserving social cohesion and assuring academic quality." Excluding the rich from the program and forcing the poor to rely on the charity of others for the delivery of a constitutionally-guaranteed education is not my idea of serving the needs of ALL families.

I am arguing that your idea of how best to serve "the needs of ALL families" is not consistent with the historical or international evidence. You think that the poor, in particular, would be better served by a single-payer government system. Horace Mann made the same case for the public school monopoly. But such systems have historically done a relatively bad job of serving the poor. Low income families are generally politically weak, and so have the least ability to shape the constraints within which a single-payer system operates. A multiplicity of providers is more empowering.

As for the wealthiest families, I don’t see the justification for including them in a program which is meant to ensure universal access to the education marketplace when they already have that access. You seem to be implying that ensuring everyone participates in a government program is necessarily the right thing to do. I don’t agree. Should we all get food stamps, too? Subsidized housing?


[1] See: http://www.fraserinstitute.ca/admin/books/chapterfiles/Market%20Education%20and%20the%20Public%20Good-5_coulson.pdf