Since Laurence M. Vance used his review (“Why Johnny Shouldn’t Vouch,” July) of two new books on parental choice in education to repeat his stale objections to school vouchers, I wish to correct his mistakes and bring readers up to date on the voucher debate.

Vance conveys three reservations he has about vouchers, which will be familiar to anyone who read the Freeman during the 1970’s and 80’s: Vouchers still rely on taxes to pay for schooling; they may lead to more government regulation of private schools; and they may encourage greater dependence on government.  These are legitimate concerns but not compelling reasons for libertarians or paleoconservatives to oppose vouchers.

Ending public funding of schools may be the proper objective, but it is a losing proposition politically.  The government-school establishment, financed by half-a-trillion dollars in taxes each year, diverts billions of dollars annually into defending its exclusive franchise.  Real per-pupil spending by government schools is rising year after year, hardly a sign of waning power.  Right or wrong, a large majority of the American public believes schools should be subsidized by taxpayers.

Vouchers are a promising tactic because they do not challenge this public consensus directly, focusing instead on whether a government monopoly is the right way to deliver the entitlement.  Here, the public is on our side.  They know private schools tend to be better than government schools, that government monopolies tend to be inefficient and unaccountable, and that religious liberty requires that government keep its hands off religiously affiliated schools.

Leaving the entitlement to “free” public education in place while privatizing its delivery does not create a new entitlement; it only alters the way a current entitlement is delivered.  If adopted by cities and states nationwide (not by the “federal government,” as Vance repeatedly says—libertarian advocates of vouchers want to abolish the federal Department of Education, too), millions of jobs would move from the government to the private sector.  The funds and personnel used to defend the public-school monopoly would shrink, and funds and personnel available to defend the autonomy of private schools would expand.

This is a critical point in the case for vouchers that critics such as Vance fail to address.  In order to end the open-ended entitlement to tax-financed schooling, we first need to weaken the interest groups defending it and to strengthen or create new interest groups against it.  Vouchers are already doing this.  Nothing else we have tried has had this effect.

I have long argued (most recently, in Chapter 11 of Education and Capitalism by Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast, 2003) that voucher programs, once in place, are likely to lead to public support for narrowing the entitlement to a “free” education by lowering the amount to what is necessary to buy a basic education in a competitive marketplace (probably less than half of current government per-pupil spending) and restricting eligibility to those who cannot afford to pay tuition.  School vouchers would become similar to welfare and food stamps, part of the social safety net rather than a middle-class entitlement program.  If libertarians ever become politically relevant enough to abolish the social safety net (and I’m not holding my breath), school vouchers would end with it.

Vance’s second objection to vouchers, that they may lead to more government regulation of private schools, is a red herring.  States (and, to a lesser degree, cities) are free to regulate secular schools to their heart’s content; they don’t need the excuse of vouchers or a “cash nexus” to exercise that authority.  No state in the country has a constitutional provision protecting the freedom of private schools from excessive regulation.  Such provisions are missing because the private-school sector in the United States is too small to defend itself against the giant government-school lobby, and because religious schools have as much protection as they apparently think they need under the federal Constitution.  A voucher program, by dramatically expanding the private-school marketplace, would change this dynamic in favor of more, not less, private-school autonomy.

Vance’s third objection, that vouchers may lead to more dependency on government, is a confused and confusing argument.  Must we avoid doing anything that might improve or replace the government schools attended by 87 percent of American children for fear that the parents of the remaining 13 percent would be tempted to withdraw their children from existing private schools or stop homeschooling?  That is an odd position for a libertarian to take, because it means limiting the freedom of choice of the vast majority of parents and second-guessing the wisdom and commitment of parents who currently choose to keep their children out of government schools.  It also confuses whose money is being talked about: It’s not the government’s money.  How can it be right to deny parents/taxpayers some of their own tax dollars back in the form of a voucher (or tax credit, for that matter) for fear that they wouldn’t spend it the “right” way?

The school-voucher movement is one of the most successful efforts now underway to translate libertarian ideas into public policy.  Libertarians and paleoconservatives ought to be at the table helping design programs that protect school autonomy, narrow rather than enlarge the entitlement to taxpayer dollars, and protect the interests of homeschoolers and others who choose unconventional schools.  Recycling old worries and wishing for utopia won’t save a single child now trapped in a failing school.

        —Joseph L. Bast
Chicago, IL

Mr. Vance Replies:

Mr. Bast needs to make up his mind.  Are my “three reservations” about vouchers “stale objections,” or are they “legitimate concerns”?  Whether “a large majority of the American public believes schools should be subsidized by the taxpayers,” and whether “ending funding of public schools” is “a losing proposition politically,” are of no concern to me.  A large majority of Americans believe that many things should be subsidized by taxpayers.  To advocate an end to the funding of these “things” is indeed “a losing proposition politically.”  My philosophical opposition to vouchers as an income-transfer program is not in the least bit tempered by public opinion or political considerations.

Mr. Bast argues that eligibility for voucher programs should be restricted “to those who cannot afford to pay tuition.”  It is therefore ludicrous for him to insist, later, that “parents/taxpayers” should not be denied “some of their own tax dollars back in the form of a voucher.”  Most of those eligible for vouchers will pay little or no taxes.

Like Merrifield and Bolick, Bast doesn’t think that vouchers will lead to increased government regulation of private schools.  His argument—that this is a red herring because states have the power to regulate private schools now—ignores what I pointed out in my review: “It is inconceivable that the government (federal or state) would ever provide money to parents or schools without attaching strings to its largesse.”  Calling vouchers “parental choice in education,” and thereby perpetuating the myth that parents have no “school choice” right now, is the real red herring.

I am perplexed as to why my objection “that vouchers may lead to more dependency on government” is called “a confused and confusing argument.”  Bast himself says that “school vouchers would become similar to welfare and food stamps.”  Are there any “entitlements” that foster increased dependency on government more than these two?

I cannot imagine how “the school-voucher movement” translates “libertarian ideas into public policy,” since forcing someone to pay for the education of someone else’s children is the antithesis of libertarianism.

Since Mr. Bast mentioned the Freeman, I will close with the words of one who wrote extensively for that publication, Ludwig von Mises: “There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education.  Public funds must not be used for such purposes.  The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions.”

On New Faces

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Sault Ste. Marie, MI