Conservative and libertarian proponents of “school choice,” that is, government-provided educational vouchers that allow low-income parents to send their children to the school of their choice — which usually means private schools that they would otherwise not be able to afford — now generally make only two arguments in defense of government-provided educational vouchers.
They used to maintain that a voucher system was a necessary gradual and intermediate step toward the goal of ending public education. In John Merrifield’s School Choices: True and False (2002), in which he endorses the voucher scheme of Milton Friedman (1912–2006), he remarks: “Libertarians should note that Friedman-type proposals are the best and probably the only political feasible way to achieve complete separation of school and state.” Yet, separating school and state is the last thing on the mind of current voucher proponents, and such arguments are never made. Now, it is argued that school choice is a great idea because it results in improvements in the education of children and can save taxpayers money.
I will grant the first premise but question the second.
Regarding the first premise, giving an inner-city, low-income single mother a voucher to send her child to a private school instead of the drug- and crime-ridden public school that her child now attends will certainly result in a better education for her child. Of course, it will. How could it not?
But whether school choice “works,” allows a child to go to a safer school, increases test scores, has a good track record, produces good results, raises graduation rates, expands access to quality education, or is “better” than public education is not the issue. It may do and be all these things and more. But is whether a government program meets some objective the way we should judge government programs?
If the government gave every American family a new car every year, it would give them better transportation options. They would not have to take public transportation. They could spend less of their income on car repairs. They would not have to call a taxi or schedule an Uber. They could travel when it was convenient for them. They would no longer have to worry about their worn-out car breaking down on the way to work in the morning.
And why stop with transportation? Why not government vouchers for vacations, entertainment, and recreation? What American family would not be better off if it could take a nice vacation every year, attend a ball game together, or go bowling together?
Clearly, whether educational vouchers make children better off is not the issue.
Whether the vouchers are for education, vacations, entertainment, or recreation, the same two questions need to be asked: Who is paying for the vouchers, and is it the role of government to distribute them?
There is certainly nothing wrong with private vouchers. Any individual, business, corporation, foundation, or organization that wants to give parents a voucher to use for their children’s education is certainly welcome to do so.
But government has no money of its own. Every dollar backing a government voucher has to first be taken from American taxpayers. This makes vouchers an income transfer scheme just like TANF, food stamps, Medicaid, and other welfare programs. If education vouchers are legitimate, then why are vouchers for vacations, entertainment, recreation illegitimate? Once vouchers for education are deemed to be acceptable, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government providing vouchers for other services.
And since it is not the proper role of government to distribute vouchers, awarding privately funded vouchers would still be illegitimate and would still cost the government money because of all the government bureaucrats that would be necessary to operate the voucher program.
The second premise is that vouchers will save the taxpayers money. This has been argued from the very beginning. Here is Milton Friedman in Free to Choose (1979):
On the average, countrywide, it cost the taxpayer—you and me—about $2,000 per year in 1978 for every child enrolled. If you withdraw your child from a public school and send him to a private school, you save taxpayers about $2,000 per year—but you get no part of that saving except as it is passed on to all taxpayers.
Suppose, however, the government said to you: “If you relieve us of the expense of schooling your child, you will be given a voucher, a piece of paper redeemable for a designated sum of money, if, and only if, it is used to pay the cost of schooling your child at an approved school.” The sum of money might be $2,000, or it might be a lesser sum, say $1,500 or $1,000, in order to divide the saving between you and the other taxpayers.
The same argument is made today, just with higher numbers. Although the math is correct, this is not how things work when the government is involved.
If one taxpayer or a hundred taxpayers or a thousand taxpayers withdraw their children from a public school, the taxpayers don’t save a dime. The state and local education budgets are never cut the next school year because x number of children no longer attend a public school. No government bureaucrats in the department of education are ever fired. No teachers are ever furloughed. No public schools are ever closed.
It is even worse when vouchers are involved. Not only is the education budget never reduced, no bureaucrats ever fired, no teachers ever furloughed, and no public schools ever closed: In fact, more money is spent on education in order to pay for the vouchers.
Giving one group of Americans the choice of where to spend the tax dollars of other Americans to educate their children is immoral and unjust.