Last week I saw State Senator Nancy Spence at an Independence Institute event. She agreed to sit down for a video interview. Mostly we discussed “public” education and Colorado politics.
Obviously I don’t always agree with Spence—and there are quite a few tough questions I did not ask during this interview—yet I appreciate Spence’s long-standing commitment to Colorado politics. I wish her well as she leaves the legislature and begins new projects.
I review the basics of President Obama’s plans for student loans and point out they would put taxpayers on the hook for part of the debt. I also found some interesting statistics about the skyrocketing costs of higher education — caused predominantly by federal meddling.
I write, “[A]t issue is not the size of the bailout, but the fact that it forcibly transfers wealth from some people to others, violating the rights of the first group and turning the second into parasites. The more government acts on the notion that it is acceptable to bail out some at the expense of others, the more we will see injustices enacted into law.”
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.
WTVD out of North Carolina posted an interesting story illustrating how tax-funded schools deal with the devil.
Tieanna Trough, a student at Gray’s Creek High School, “refused to write an essay on making a deal with the Devil… Trough says when the teacher told students to write an essay on how they would sell their souls — or what trade they would make with the Devil — she refused, saying that compromised her Christian values and her parents agreed.”
The girl’s mother complained, “We can’t allow God into the classrooms, but yet they are going to allow the Devil in the classroom.”
The mother “says an alternate assignment was also unacceptable, so they complained to school officials.” Unfortunately, the report does not specify the nature of the “alternate assignment.” Finally the school, the student, and her family agreed on an appropriate topic: “how and why money is important.” (How that is any more Christian remains a mystery to me, given the New Testament’s antipathy toward material wealth.)
Clearly both sides were being a little silly here. The student could have used the assignment to write a work of fiction illustrating the harm that comes with making a deal with the devil (which she obviously takes as something more than frightful myth). The teacher, on the other hand, could have promptly made alternative arrangements with the student.
Nevertheless, the story does illustrate a deeper problem with tax-funded schools. The student’s mother has a legitimate complaint: why is it okay for tax funds to promote devil-dealing but not Christianity? To extend the argument, why is it okay to force people to fund the teaching of evolution but not creationism? The “separation of church and state” rules out the latter, but why is the former permitted?
If schools were voluntarily funded, policy would be set by the owners of the school in association with the funders and the students. If the student’s parents didn’t like the policy, they would be free to withdraw their daughter — and their funds — and send them elsewhere. Notably, this would give schools a strong incentive to make reasonable accommodations. (Some schools would cater to different world views; I’d personally favor a school that focused on secular education but that accommodated religious students.)
In the case of Gray’s Creek, however, the girl’s parents are forced the finance the school whether their daughter attends the school or not. Talk about a deal with the devil.