Free Market Arguments Against Vouchers

This past weekend I attended the Free Minds Film Festival in Colorado Springs, and it was fantastic. Among the great documentaries we saw wasThe Cartel, a film by Bob Bowden about the shocking corruption in the New Jersey government schools.

I spoke on a panel following the film with Bowdon and Ben DeGrow.Following are my remarks. (I believe the organizers of the film fest will publish video of the entire panel.)

Listeners might be confused as to why I oppose vouchers and yet support tax credits and charter schools (as interim reforms). I think any political reform needs to pass a two-part test.

1. Does the reform expand or weaken protections of individual rights? Liberty activists should support reforms that obviously expand individual rights and oppose reforms that obviously weaken them. If a reform is neutral with respect to individual rights, then move to the second test.

2. Does a reform improve results? If so, support it. Remember that we’ve already decided the reform does not further weaken individual rights. If a reform strengthens individual rights, it necessarily improves results; the moral is the practical.

In light of that test, I’ll briefly review the three sorts of reforms.

A charter school does not increase taxes levied. Instead, it offers families and educators a means to escape some of the worst problems of the teachers’ unions and political education controls. So I think charters pass the second test.

A tax credit, as I’ve reviewed before, threatens to bring new political controls to nominally private schools. For that reason tax credits may weaken individual rights, which is why I’ve always been nervous about them. On the other hand, a tax credit would not increase net taxes levied, while it would offer tax payers significantly more choice in how to spend their education-directed dollars.

A voucher program suffers two problems. It brings new controls to nominally private schools, and it also forces some taxpayers to finance religious institutions against their will, in violation of their freedom of conscience. So I think vouchers clearly fail the first test.

In watching Bowdon’s film, I realized that charter schools and vouchers largely end up in the same place: schools still controlled by politicians but with significantly greater parental control. But there are two important differences. First, charter schools simply cannot be religious in nature. Second, there is no confusion about charter schools being “private.” The proponents of vouchers explicitly call schools “private” which receive voucher funds, and that destroys the very distinction between political force and the genuinely free market.

I think the best set of interim reforms, then, consists of charter schools in conjunction with universal tax credits in which tax payers are restricted to giving their forcibly confiscated funds to charter schools. I also think charter schools should be very easy to start, with clear and simple rules and evaluations. This expands the options of parents and expands the choice of those footing the bill, but it retains the important distinction between government-financed education and free-market education.

In a free market, people without children may decide whether to contribute their funds to education, and if so in what way and in what amount. Parents, educators, and voluntary organizations bear responsibility for organizing and financing education. By the standards of free markets and individual rights, that remains the ultimate goal. A free market is the only system in which “education choice” fully becomes reality.

1 thought on “Free Market Arguments Against Vouchers”

  1. Comment by Anonymous October 17, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    Hi Ari,

    I fail to see the leap between vouchers and private school control. What kind of controls are you talking about? For example, the State may insist that a simple annual core test is the only voucher requirement. Assuming the State places tighter controls, could the private school simply refuse vouchers? The loss of private school argument, just doesn’t register with me.

    Imagine a check be issued to every Colorado resident with children under the age of 18. The free education market would thrive and ultimately shift into excess. If you want more of something, subsidize it.

    Can ANY changes really be worse than what we have now, which is a total State monopoly.


    Comment by Ari October 17, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    Jeff, What the government funds, the government controls. Yes, schools could refuse vouchers; the point is that the strong financial incentive will drive many schools to accept vouchers and the government controls that come with them.

    Forcing taxpayers to send a check to every Colorado resident under 18 is NOT a “free market,” for reasons explained. A free market entails voluntary financing, not forced wealth transfers. -Ari

    Comment by kazriko October 27, 2011 at 8:31 PM

    Before I say anything else, I’ll mention something I got from John Stossel. When they took a look at the best performing and cheapest school systems in the world, they found that they had two features in common. The Student could take the money for their schooling with them wherever they went to school, and the schools themselves had a great deal of autonomy to implement their own ideas and make them work.

    I’m not so sure about Tax credits as a way to do this because it would defeat at least part of the purpose, which is to get deserving low income kids into better schools. By our current system, low income families pay no taxes at all, so they would lose out on the opportunity. It would leave in place the distortions of the economy caused by government education.

    So ultimately, of the 3 options you discussed, Charter schools seems like the one that is best. I’m with you on some of the downsides to Vouchers. They may be worked around though.

    The “Private” vs. “Public” schools is a bit of a misnomer to me. “Government” and “non-Government” schools seems to be a better way to frame the debate. Private schools can turn students away, but a non-government public school shouldn’t be able to without some pretty severe circumstances. Vouchers if they exist should go only to non-government public schools, not private ones.

    I would argue that Religious schools shouldn’t be allowed to receive vouchers. This shouldn’t be a problem, as those people sending kids to religious schools often aren’t doing it due to the quality of the education, but due to the kind of education they want their kids to receive, and even without vouchers would send their kids there.

    A good way to improve education other than merely looking at funding would be to get the higher levels of government out of the equation and give more independence to the schools.

    Comment by Ari October 27, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    One point worth considering, Kazriko, is that a universal tax credit system allows not just parents but everyone to direct their education dollars at will. This would open up things like scholarship programs.

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