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The Statism of School Vouchers


For years, some conservatives have claimed that school vouchers are a gradual method to end state involvement in education. For the life of me, I just cannot understand the logic of their argument. It seems clear to me that school vouchers are just another welfare-state program that would make state involvement in education even more entrenched than it already is.

Let’s assume that thousands of families are provided educational vouchers. Doesn’t there have to be an enormous government bureaucracy to administer the program? Who else is going to distribute the vouchers? Who else is going to keep track of who is getting the vouchers? Who else is going to monitor the use of the vouchers?

Once that bureaucracy, which is likely to be quite large, comes into existence, what are the chances that the bureaucrats are going to favor their department’s going out of business? Wouldn’t they be expected to fight tooth and nail for the continuation and expansion of their budgets?

What about all the schools that would be receiving the vouchers? Wouldn’t they have to expand operations to handle the huge influx of new students? More teachers. More administrators. More buildings. More textbooks. More classes. What are the chances that a couple of years down the line, a school whose revenues depend largely on the vouchers is going to say, “It’s time to dismantle the voucher system since it was always intended to be a gradual method of ending state involvement in education anyway”?

Answer: Virtually no chance at all. Once people go on the dole, especially in a big way, the possibility that they will call for an end to their dole is almost nil. That’s one of the most insidious aspects of welfare-state programs — they create a mindset of hopeless dependency that suppresses such qualities as self-confidence, self-reliance, and independence. Just look at recipients of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education grants, and military contracts. When was the last time you saw any of them calling for an end to their dole?

Conservatives claim that school vouchers are a “free-market” approach to education because they give people “choice.” But that’s ridiculous. Food stamps give people “choice.” Does that make food stamps a “free-market” approach to food? Indeed, any welfare check gives people choices they didn’t have before. For that matter, doesn’t robbery give a robber choices that he didn’t have before?

Contrary to what conservatives claim, school vouchers are not free-market or free enterprise. They are nothing more than a welfare-state program that uses the force of the state to take money from people in order to subsidize the schooling of those who have children. The program would be no different than one that taxed everyone to subsidize the clothing of people’s children.

What is a genuine free market in education? A total separation of school and state, just as our ancestors separated church and state. That means no morecompulsory-attendance laws, no more school taxes, no more public school buildings, no more public schoolteachers, and no more public school classes. In other words, no more state involvement in education.

A total free market in education would place educational decisions entirely in the hands of families, just as the free market in religion does. People would be free to choose the education vehicle that they deemed best suited for each of their children. Entrepreneurs would be flooding the market with a diverse range of educational options, competing with each other to satisfy consumers.

Why don’t conservatives advocate a total separation of school and state rather than school vouchers? My hunch is that it’s because they want to be considered “respectable” or “credible” among the mainstream press and others by embracing statist ideas while, at the same time, appearing to support “free enterprise” by claiming, falsely, that vouchers are “free market” in nature.

Moreover, obviously the case for educational freedom is much more difficult to make than the case for vouchers. Advocates of educational freedom must make the moral and utilitarian case for getting the state entirely out of the education business. Advocates of vouchers don’t have to reach that point and hardly ever do. They simply argue that vouchers will be an improvement of the status quo. In fact, some conservatives now make their case for vouchers by actually claiming that vouchers will improve public schooling!

Let’s leave vouchers and other statist devices to the conservatives. We libertarians should continue raising people’s vision to the genuine principles of a free society, including the principles of educational liberty.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.