A Conversation with State Senator Nancy Spence

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.

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.

Another Look at Education Tax Credits

Earlier this year Michael LaFerrara advocated education tax credits in an article for the Objective Standard. I criticized a number of his important assumptions. He responded. So that would seem to put me back at bat.

As much as I appreciate LaFerrara’s enthusiasm for tax credits and for trying to move education in a better direction, I continue to think he overstates the potential of tax credits for advancing liberty, understates their inevitable problems, and fundamentally misunderstands the alternative.

My Position

LaFerrara claims I initially “leaned in favor of an education tax credit plan,” then “moved in the opposite direction,” concluding that “tax credits… must be rejected.” That’s not quite right.

In the February 4 article I coauthored with my dad Linn, we built on the idea of “choice” in education. We progressed from vouchers to tax credits for parents, then to more-ambitious universal tax credits.

Then we concluded that real choice consistent with individual rights means leaving people free to spend their resources however they want, consistent with other people’s rights. We wrote that even a tax credit plan “falls short of the standard of individual rights and free markets, for it requires people to direct a portion of their resources to schools. Real liberty means people can spend their earnings however they wish, whether for schools, medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas.” (Note that parents do have a responsibility, and a legally enforceable one at that, to provide for their children’s intellectual development; however, Laferrara goes far afield in attempting to link this to possible “standardized testing.”)

In my June 18 reply to LaFerrara, I did not conclude that tax credits “must be rejected;” as LaFerrara notes, I wrote, “There might be other good reasons for promoting universal tax credits for education, but tax credits will not eliminate government controls over education spending.”

If it seems like I’m taking an ambiguous position on tax credits, it’s because I am. My position is this. Because tax credits fundamentally presume the government’s authority to forcibly transfer wealth for education, I do not believe they are worth the investment of resources necessary to achieve them. At best, tax credits threaten to muddy the ideological waters.

Am I going to morally condemn people who advocate tax credits? No. Am I going to help finance their campaigns? No. Will I endorse and vote for a decent tax-credit proposal? Yes. Am I going to point out the inherent and potential problems with tax credits? Yes. Doing so keeps the debate focussed on the fundamental issue of individual rights, and it helps ensure that, if a tax credit proposal comes about, it will be a relatively better sort.

Principles and Incrementalism

On one hand, LaFerrara suggests I want to achieve the “ideal of free market education… in a single sweeping transformation”; on the other hand he claims I support “a much more subdued reform agenda” than tax credits. Neither claim is accurate.

Advocating the complete separation of school and state may be called many things, but I do not think “subdued” makes the list. I regard the agenda as rather ambitious.

But ambitious, principled reforms can (usually) only be achieved incrementally. Contrary to popular myth, there is no inherent clash between principles and incrementalism. The enemy is unprincipled incrementalism.

In the modern American context, any deep reform of education must be achieved over a span of many years. I advocate, primarily, making the intellectual case that individual rights (including rights to one’s own wealth) apply in the field of education. This involves many concrete political strategies, including fighting tax hikes for education, phasing in means testing (with lower taxes), and supporting real market alternatives. I do not advocate merely making a few marginal reforms and then giving up, as LaFerrara seems to assume, but instead systematically building on previous reforms until attaining a completely free market in education.

Tax credits in any sort of ambitious form could only be achieved through a long-term political battle as well. But my worry is that the fight for tax credits will ultimately undermine real liberty in education, precisely because they entrench the notion that government properly forces wealth transfers.

LaFerrara, then, basically misunderstands my position when he claims I seem “content to stop well short of taking the political offensive.” I’m all about taking the political offensive! (I do not personally want to spend my life specifically on reforming education, though I’m pleased to spend some of my time doing that and supporting the efforts of others.) I simply wish to avoid mistaking the “political offensive” for a circular firing squad (i.e., a strategy that ultimately undermines rather than achieves individual rights and economic liberty).

Because LaFerrara confuses the relationship between principles and incrementalism, he misattributes to me positions I do not hold, and he advocates one policy that clearly violates rights. He suggests that, by the logic of my argument, I should also oppose such “incremental” reforms as Health Savings accounts and a flat[ter] tax. But that’s just not so: I advocate both those reforms precisely because they unambiguously move us toward liberty. But LaFerrara also throws mandatory savings accounts in the mix of allegedly “incremental ‘free market reforms'” — even though those unambiguously move us in the direction of greater statism.

The essential in evaluating a political proposal is not whether it is incremental or far-reaching or whether it is implemented slowly or quickly. Those are contextual and strategic matters. The essential is whether it in fact advances individual rights.

So do tax credits advance individual rights? I think the answer is yes, because at least they expand the individual’s control over his own resources. But they still mandate the money be spent in a very narrow way (for education). The real risk is that tax credits will become yet another tool for Republicans to basically argue, “Forced wealth transfers? Of course I’m for that! I advocate a massive welfare state! Only I do want individuals to have a bit more choice within the context of the government setting the basic terms.”

The Inherent Controls of Tax Credits

LaFerrara’s basic case is this: “Once the choice of how their education dollars can be spent is relegated to the taxpayer, we will be closer to the day when it will be politically feasible to question why he or she must be forced to pay any government-mandated sum.”

I think that could be the case, so long as advocates of tax credits keep focused on the underlying principles. (I note merely that practically all conservatives who advocate tax credits systematically ignore those principles.) If the advocates of tax credits treat them as a means toward achieving liberty, rather than an alternative way to forcibly redistribute wealth, then they may well do some good ultimately.

Unfortunately, LaFerrara largely misunderstands my point about the inherent controls of tax credits. The whole premise of tax credits is that politicians will force you to finance education, only you get much more leeway in how to do that. But obviously there will be limits. As I’ve pointed out, tax credits for “My Family’s Vacation to Disneyland” or “The School for Satanism and the Occult” or “The School for Shopping at the Mall” would be politically rejected. What is allowable and what is forbidden will depend on how a particular tax credit proposal works itself out in a legislature and court system. I predict that any actual tax credit system will in fact place very tight controls on how the money is spent.

LaFerrara points out that free-market elements of the economy routinely fall under increased political controls, too. But this misses the fundamental difference. In the market segment, the default is that the individual owns his own resources, and the government then overrides his rights for some alleged greater good. With tax credits, the default is that the individual does not own the resources in question, and the government is merely setting limits on how to allocate the government’s money. With tax credits, the default and the inexorable condition is control.

The idea that that an actual legislature would institute a universal tax credit program with absolutely no controls is pie-in-the-sky, rationalistic, detached-from-reality, utopian thinking.

If you think advocating tax credits will open people’s minds to the idea that they actually own their own wealth, then I wish you well in that endeavor. But, in the interim, let’s recognize tax credits for what they are: political controls on how people spend their money.

***

Anonymous published the following comment on August 20, 2011 at 10:24 AM:

Hi Ari,

An amendment to abolish Federal, taxation collection and taxation expenditure, for education purposes.

An amendment to abolish State, taxation collection and taxation expenditure, for education purposes.

Ari, when and where are you collecting signatures?

When will your Representatives present these measures?

Thanks,

Jeff

Mike LaFerrara posted the following comment on August 21, 2011 at 5:24 AM:

Ari,

I appreciate your attention to this subject. Most of what you’ve said here I have already answered in my 8/11/11 post, and I refer the reader to that: http://principledperspectives.blogspot.com/2011/08/education-tax-credits-taking-political.html.

But, let me state that we are in complete agreement in regard to principled incrementalism. There is no confusion in my mind about “the relationship between principles and incrementalism”. That was the main point of my recent essay. However, people who agree on basic principles can differ widely on their application to practice – ex. personal accounts within SS.

Yes, they are government-enforced savings. But, what we have today is forced redistribution backed only by hollow promises of old-age benefits, rescindable at any time by congress (http://www.socialsecurity.org/daily/01-13-99.html). At least the taxpayer would have possession of, and a right to, his/her own money, rather than the politicians. I consider SS personal accounts to be a step toward individual rights, especially property rights – preferably without, but even with, basic investment controls. They can be advocated as a step in the phase-out process. Personal SS accounts are consistent with your statement that “tax credits advance individual rights … because at least they expand the individual’s control over his own resources.” Incremental reforms must certainly be anchored to explicitly proclaimed principles, lest we advance statism. On that we agree. As I’ve said before, I have yet to see an education tax credit program that meets the test of (free market) principled incrementalism – certainly not ones advocated by conservatives and Republicans!

This brings me to my “misunderstandings” about your positions. Any assumptions I’ve made are rooted in my analysis of things you wrote. Without going into too many details, let me just say in my defense that, as you acknowledge, your tax credit position is ambiguous. I’m still not clear on exactly where you come down on them. Your strenuous objections in your last piece seemed to preclude any support for tax credits, yet now you say you’d support “a decent tax-credit proposal”. Here we seem to agree again: A properly structured tax credit program would be a step in the right direction. What would a “decent proposal” include, in you view? Otherwise, I think you confuse “misunderstandings” with disagreement, such as on the issue of “inherent controls of tax credits”. If – and I can’t resist repeating myself here – “a universal tax credit program with absolutely no controls is pie-in-the-sky, rationalistic, detached-from-reality, utopian thinking”, then how on earth can anyone believe that “an actual legislature would [ever] institute” the complete separation of education and state?

By the way, what do you mean by “phasing in means testing (with lower taxes)” as one of “many concrete political strategies”?

Best to all,
Mike “Zemack” LaFerrara

Do CO Vouchers Pass the Constitutional and Moral Test?

Douglas County passed a voucher program, prompting a (predictable) lawsuit from the ACLU. The Institute for Justice (IJ) has intervened on behalf of the school district. And the Independence Institute of Golden has taken up a public-relations campaign for the voucher program.

The first question is this: does this or any voucher program in Colorado pass Constitutional muster?

The First Amendment of the federal Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” As I’ve summarized, the Supreme Court has ruled that the establishment clause does not rule out vouchers for religious institutions; in certain circumstances they are permitted.

My own view is that there should be an absolute prohibition of any tax funding of any religious group, whether or not the First Amendment requires that. Forcing people to finance religious organizations violates their freedom of speech and economic liberty. (Of course, I oppose forced wealth transfers per se.) But let us grant that the federal Constitution (as now interpreted) does not invalidate the voucher program in question.

The more important language comes from Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…

This is the the most clear, absolutist language I can imagine. It prohibits tax funding of any religious group.

Ah, but you see, that language does not actually mean what is says, so we may simply ignore it. At least that is the upshot of IJ’s position:

IJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer said, “This challenge to Douglas County’s innovative program will fail for one principal reason: It is parents — and not government officials — who are deciding what school a child attends. No educational money will be spent at any school through this program — be it secular or religious — without a parent making that free and independent choice. The provision of the Colorado Constitution on which the opponents of school choice rely has already been interpreted by the Colorado Supreme Court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to permit Colorado students to use state-provided financial assistance at religious schools, so long as the program is religiously neutral (meaning it doesn’t favor or disfavor religion) and the choice is made by the students and their families. Those who challenge school choice always disparage the key role played by the parents in selecting the schools their children will attend, but the Institute for Justice will defend the parents’ rights to choose the best available education for their children.”

I have not reviewed the legal decisions invoked by Komer. But the Colorado Constitution does not say that school districts can subsidize religious institutions so long as it’s done indirectly through a citizen-directed voucher. Whether or not the courts will allow it, directing vouchers to religious schools obviously violates the Colorado Constitution, and any other reading is convenient legal fiction.

Whether the relevant section of the Colorado Constitution was badly motivated is beside the point legally speaking. We can’t just ignore Constitutional provisions because we don’t like them. Instead, the proper move for those who dislike the provision is to seek its repeal.

That said, a few years ago Rob Boston questioned whether the prohibition of religious subsidies arose from anti-Catholic bigotry, as its opponents allege.

I have not looked deeply into the historical question, because frankly it doesn’t much matter to me. Is the Colorado language inherently biased? No, it is not. It does not target one faith, but rather prohibits tax subsidies of all faiths.

The relevant moral question is this: does the prohibition of tax subsidies for religious institutions protect rights or violate them? The obvious answer is that it protects people’s rights. People have the right to control their own resources. They have the freedom of conscience, which entails the freedom of speech, which entails the right not to support ideas they oppose. People have the right not to finance religious organizations if they don’t want to, and it is wrong to try to force them to.

Now, as I have argued, it is also wrong to force people to subsidize nonreligious ideas they oppose, such as the environmental indoctrination so prevalent in today’s “public” schools. But the solution to that problem is not to universalize the rights violations! Instead, we should seek to protect individual rights across the board. (See also my article,“Rethinking Education Tax Credits.”)

On the PR front, the Independence Institute (II) has released a video to the effect that the voucher funds are useful to students and their families. Well, the same could be argued for the recipients of any subsidy.

While the II and IJ talk about “choice,” they forget about the most fundamental choice involved here: the choice of how to spend one’s resources. Outside that context, we’re merely discussing some alleged “freedom to choose” how to spend other people’s money.

Now, Douglas County could start a voucher program that excluded religious schools. But that would also generate some problems. What if a basically religious school nevertheless claims to be secular or nonreligious? Why should religious schools be punted from the program, but not, say, the Al Gore School for Environmental Propaganda, or the Che Guevara School for Socialism?

Vouchers must go in one of two directions. Either they must be neutral to ideology, in which case they force taxpayers to finance institutions they may find abhorrent. Or they must discriminate on the basis of ideology, which is not obviously better.

The third option is to forget about vouchers and focus on establishing real, free-market education.

***

Anonymous commented on July 19, 2011 at 3:02 PM
Hi Ari,

I always thought vouchers as my first step to accomplishing your challenge of creating a free market for education. I figure the competition will create clear winners. These winners will produce educated students, efficiently. Ultimately these better schools will dominate the market. Maybe, just maybe a sensible body of representatives will recognize this success of a nearly free market and take the final plunge. They will say, hey, this is so stream lined and affordable, citizens should just pay for this themselves. We hereby no longer collect or expend revenue for education. I fear the current system moves us the exact opposite direct. Education becomes more bloated and expensive. Government subsidy or insurance are the only way to “fund” education.

Please explain why my first step is not an acceptable first step to free market education. Also please provide your first step. Certainly blogging is a nano start but what type of legislation, (even if it is legislation that deregulates), would you like to see?

Thanks,

Jeff

Anonymous commented on July 19, 2011 at 3:09 PM
Hi Ari,

I forgot to mention this point in my previous post. It is regarding a different area so a separate post may be appropriate. The Colorado Constitution uses the word “sectarian” 3 times when refereeing to prohibited education. I did a quick search on sectarian and there is much disagreement to the actual meaning. Many believe it is not just religion. For example Denver Green School would be considered sectarian when compared to alternate definitions of sectarian. Any education other than core may be sectarian?

Thanks,

Jeff

Why Rosen is Wrong about Vouchers

Does the U.S. Constitution support the Douglas County voucher program?

Ed Quillen and Ben DeGrow have fought it out on the origins of the so-called “Blaine Amendments,” which inspired Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution prohibiting tax funding of religious institutions.

But here my purpose is not to try to sort out that history; as I’ve written,“Those who do not like that language [about tax funding], it seems to me, should seek to repeal it rather than ignore it.” Nor is my main goal here to discuss the propriety of vouchers, which I’ve done before.

Instead, I want to determine whether the U.S. Constitution trumps the Colorado Constitution in legalizing vouchers within the state. It does not.

This morning on 850 KOA, Mike Rosen offered the following argument. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) does not rule out voucher programs that direct tax money to religious schools, so long as the government does not favor certain religious schools and makes the program available to a general class of citizen. Therefore, argued Rosen, the First Amendment trumps Colorado’s Article IX, Section 7, rendering vouchers legally permissible within Colorado.

But Rosen’s logic is faulty. The Supreme Court merely ruled (or so I understand) that a voucher program does not necessarily violate the First Amendment; whether a voucher program violates a state constitution is another question entirely.

The only way Douglas County’s voucher program could be tossed out federally is if it were deemed to violate some aspect of the federal constitution. Nobody is arguing that. (I think a good case can be made that forcibly redirecting funds to religious institutions does violate the establishment clause, but I don’t get a legal say in such matters.)

But the U.S. Constitution’s relatively weak establishment clause does not prohibit states from enacting stronger rules. The proper test is as follows: Does the voucher program violate the establishment clause? If no, then does it violate the Colorado Constitution? If yes, then it is invalid. (I predict the Colorado Supreme Court will side with the ACLU in this case, and I think it will be right to do so.)

Only if Article IX, Section 7 were ruled to violate the U.S. Constitution would the latter trump the former. To my knowledge, nobody has proposed a plausible case that that is so.

Contrast the case of vouchers with that of the campaign laws. I have argued that Colorado’s campaign laws violate our rights of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, the Colorado laws, though part of the state constitution, should be invalidated by trumping federal law.

But, unless Article IX, Section 7 also violates the First Amendment — and I don’t see how it could — then it constitutes the deciding law.

As I have suggested, the legal dispute aside, vouchers in fact violate people’s basic rights of economic liberty and freedom of conscience. It is wrong to force someone to finance any religious institution against his will. And until conservatives recognize that basic point, they will at best dawdle at the edges of education reform, and they most likely they will further entrench the core injustices of “public” education.

***

Rob commented June 28, 2011 at 1:10 PM
I’m glad to see this discussion of the so-called “Blaine Amendments” and the potential impact of vouchers on the separation of church and state.

Oklahoma’s Constitution has a similar clause – Article 2 Section 5 – which was the target of a potential state question in this year’s session of the legislature, as it is viewed by religious conservatives as an impediment to getting their hands on tax money, primarily through the Governor’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives.

For this reason it has been near and dear to the hearts of supporters of the separation of church and state here in Oklahoma, and I was dismayed to see it coming under attack when word of SJR23 got out at the local AU chapter’s legislative preview in January.

So much so that I posted at the blog of the Coalition for Secular Government on the possibility that this could be the opening round in a campaign to put ALL religious establishment clauses in state constitutions to the ballot.

While I’m glad to see that this has not happened – yet – I don’t think it can be ruled out and caution supporters of church/state separation to remain vigilant.

While clauses in state constitutions specifically targeting religious funding – a la the “Blaine” Amendment – may be relatively recent, religious establishment clauses predate the Constitution itself and are a crucial backup to the First Amendment. I’m sure you already know that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom inspired the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Rob commented June 28, 2011 at 1:57 PM
Quillen’s piece is EXCELLENT!

DeGrow makes some good points but basically drops context.

I am dismayed at the news from Florida! Obviously I need to catch up on what’s going on here.

Individual Rights and Vouchers

Recently Colorado’s Douglas County instituted a small voucher programredirecting tax money to parents and then, in some cases, to religious schools.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was joining a lawsuit against the program, declaring it “threatens church-state separation and public education.”

The Independence Institute fired back claiming the voucher program promotes “parental choice and educational freedom.” Moreover, the group claims, the state constitutional prohibition of spending tax money on religious schools stems from “anti-Catholic bigotry.”

Regardless of the motives for the measure, in fact Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution states the following:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…

I cannot imagine more clear constitutional language: Douglas County may not direct tax funds to religious schools. Those who do not like that language, it seems to me, should seek to repeal it rather than ignore it.

I suppose one could (implausibly) argue that, by sending the money through parents first, it is not the government itself spending the money on religious schools. But the county knowingly approved religious schools for participation in the program.

Or one could argue that Colorado’s language violates the U.S. Constitution, though that seems to me a rather difficult case to make — especially for conservatives who typically militate against “judicial activism.”

But let us for now set aside the legal question, and focus on the more fundamental question of rights.

Do religious schools, in fact, have a right to forcibly seize wealth from those unwilling to pay it, through the governmental agencies of Douglas County? For those who believe in property rights and economic liberty, the obvious answer is “no.” People have the right to fund religious schools, or not to fund them, according to their own conscience.

Of course, the same point could be made about existing government schools, such as the Denver Green School which propagandizes children about environmentalism, akin to a religion. It is as much a rights violation to force people to fund an environmentalist school as a Christian school. But, about that, the ACLU will utter not a peep.

As I have suggested, if we take economic liberty and freedom of conscience seriously, there is ultimately only one way to protect people’s rights: separate school and state.

***

Anonymous commented June 26, 2011 at 9:07 AM
Separate school and state, I like that.
Education is valuable and desired therefore there is no justification for State intervention or interference. The free market can and will beautifully deliver relevant and efficient education.

A question to all separation of Church and State, pro state education folks. Why do you think it is okay to confiscate taxes from religious folks and use them for your secular Darwin schools?

No more Federal or State funding for education.

Jeff

Ben DeGrow commented June 29, 2011 at 3:26 PM
“Do religious schools, in fact, have a right to forcibly seize wealth from those unwilling to pay it, through the governmental agencies of Douglas County? For those who believe in property rights and economic liberty, the obvious answer is ‘no.’ People have the right to fund religious schools, or not to fund them, according to their own conscience.”

Of course not, but that’s clearly not what is happening in Douglas County. Parents are directing dollars to schools — with a neutral opportunity to select religious or non-religious institutions — based on their free and independent choice. That’s where the Blaine Amendment and your argument fall down.

Ari commented June 30, 2011 at 10:20 AM
Ben, Is it not obvious that some of the tax dollars the parents are “directing… based on their free and independent choice” are forcibly seized from other taxpayers? What about their “free and independent choice?” That, I think, is where your argument falls down. -Ari

Rethinking Education Tax Credits

Should advocates of free markets and economic liberty promote such reforms as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits for education?

In an article for the Objective Standard — and a follow-up reply to critics— Michael LaFerrara argues that vouchers threaten to subject nominally private schools to government controls, whereas tax credits promise to “reduce government involvement in education immediately and lay the groundwork to eliminate it over time.”

LaFerrara grants that choice among government-run schools (such as the charter system) “may yield small improvements in the short term,” but without achieving long-term advances in liberty. I am somewhat more enthusiastic about charter schools; Colorado has done reasonably well under a robust system of choice among traditional “public” schools and charter alternatives. Two of my second-cousins attend a good charter school north of Denver, and I’ve been impressed by the Ridgeview Classical School in Fort Collins. However, such reforms apparently haven’t helped to improve Colorado’s worst schools. Do either vouchers or tax credits offer hope for more fundamental reform?

LaFerrara opposes vouchers for the basic reason that they act as government subsidies. Vouchers pass from the hands of taxpayers, to the government, then to parents for use in schools of their choice. This creates two major problems. First, it leads to more government controls of nominally private schools. As LaFerrara summarizes, “Whoever pays the bill ultimately has the power to set the terms” — and he gives concrete examples of how precisely this has happened with voucher programs. Second, vouchers entrench the welfare element of government education by forcibly transferring money to lower-income parents.

To LaFerrara, the key distinction of tax credits — and he promotes a robust reform allowing anyone who pays taxes for education to direct their money to the education of any child — is that the person earning the money spends it, and it never passes through the government. For this reason, he argues, tax credits do not inherently threaten market schools with more government controls, nor do they entrench forced wealth transfers.

However, I remain unpersuaded that a tax credit proposal such as LaFerrara proposes would remain immune from onerous government controls. Notably, the article from the Alliance for the Separation of School and State that LaFerrara cites favorably and extensively in his original article claims that “the drawbacks of vouchers are also inherent in universal tax credits.” This is an issue I’ve wrestled with; one of the first articles I wrote for my web page criticized vouchers and tax credits,whereas an article I coauthored earlier this year more seriously entertains the potential for tax credits even while acknowledging their drawbacks.

The fundamental weakness of LaFerrara’s argument is that, with tax credits, the government continues to forcibly transfer people’s money to education. Yes, you can choose either to pay taxes to standard “public” schools or redirect that money to the educational activities of your choice. True, under a tax credit system such as LaFerrara describes, the money goes directly from its earner to an educational activity, rather than first pass through the government. But still the person who earns that money is forced by law to transfer it to education, one way or another. You could not, for instance, spend that money on your own (noneducational) business, a vacation, or your retirement plan.

Thus, even though a tax credit does not funnel that money through the government, it still extends the government’s claims over that money. In a very real sense, the government continues to claim ownership of the funds in question. The difference is that, rather than forcibly seize those funds directly, the government directs those who earn the funds how to spend them (within broad limits). The money is not fundamentally owned by the person who earns it.

In his critical letter, Steve Plafker raises the possibility of parents spending “their” education money on going to the movies and sporting events. We can extend the examples: what about Disney Land? What about schools that teach Satanism or Islamic Jihad? LaFerrara replies, “[U]nder my proposed tax-credit program, parents would be within their rights to treat money spent on a child’s trip to a movie — or any other activity they regard as educational — as an educational expense.”

But there is simply no way a law such as LaFerrara describes would ever pass. Because tax credits in fact recognize government claims to the money in question, tax credits would inevitably extend government controls over the use of that money. Government would define acceptable uses of the funds, and the notion that a tax credit program could encompass a School for Watching Cartoons or a School of Islamic Jihad or a School for Christian Fundamentalism is a fantasy.

Consider also the rampant corruption a totally uncontrolled tax credit system would promote. Here is a hypothetical. A parent could claim the entire tax deduction, start a “school” that consists of watching free online cartoons, and then pay himself a “salary” for the entire portion of the tax credit. Again, it is simply a fantasy that a law allowing such a thing could ever pass.

A tax credit system may not threaten as severe of controls over nominally private schools, but certainly it would bring government guidance for the spending of those funds. There might be other good reasons for promoting universal tax credits for education, but tax credits will not eliminate government controls over education spending.

What, then, does real education reform look like? Advocates of liberty in education must protect and expand the liberties of homeschoolers and private schools. They must check runaway spending on government education and seek to disempower the teachers’ unions.

Beyond that, the basic effort must be educational and ideological. That is, people must advocate real liberty in education, including the individual freedom to choose not to fund any educational activity. (Please keep four salient points in mind. First, currently the government forces people without children to fund education. Second, in a truly free market, many people would willingly contribute huge sums of money to education. Third, parents who do not provide their children with a basic education, as with parents who do not provide adequate nutrition, may be charged with child abuse. But, forth, many parents could ably educate their children for much less than they’re forced to pay in taxes for education.) As LaFerrara recognizes, a truly free market in education remains a distant ideal. But we cannot move closer to that ideal without advocating the fundamental principles of liberty and individual rights.

Insofar as tax credits further entrench the principle that government may force people to spend their earnings on other people’s education, they hinder, rather than hasten, the movement toward true freedom in education.

***

RussK commented June 18, 2011 at 3:39 PM
I enjoyed LaFerrara’s article in The Objective Standard very much, but, likewise, I was hesitant concerning the tax credit solution. Ever since I was introduced to the voucher versus tax credit debate–going back to the beginnings of the Florida voucher system–I have always been more open to tax credits; however, there is much that makes it a problematic solution for both freedom and education, of which you point out in your article. Simply put, the government will continue to define education, whether the money flows through vouchers or tax credits. Just as the Florida voucher system brought standardized testing to private schools, it is just as likely a tax credit system would do the same. Furthermore, on a more economic level, tax credits can have a negative or inflationary market effect, whether housing, green energy, or, in the future, education. Freedom and proper education should be promoted through principle. Flooding education with tax credits, the use of which would be defined by the government, would only skirt the issue of freedom and how to educate a child, as well as further destroy what is left of private education.

Brian T. Schwartz commented June 19, 2011 at 9:44 AM
For what it’s worth, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute (& author of “Market Education, The Unknown History”) has a working paper titled “Do Vouchers and Tax Credits Increase Private School Regulation?”

Abstract:
“School voucher and education tax credit programs have proliferated in the United States over the past two decades. Advocates have argued that they will enable families to become active consumers in a free and competitive education marketplace, but some fear that these programs may in fact bring with them a heavy regulatory burden that could stifle market forces. Until now, there has been no systematic, empirical investigation of that concern. The present paper aims to shed light on the issue by quantifying the regulations imposed on private schools both within and outside school choice programs, and then analyzing them with descriptive statistics and regression analyses. The results are tested for robustness to alternative ways of quantifying private school regulation, and to alternative regression models, and the question of causality is addressed. The study concludes that vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a substantial and statistically significant additional regulatory burden on participating private schools.”

The PDF is here: http://www.cato.org/pubs/researchnotes/WorkingPaper-1-Coulson.pdf

Anonymous commented June 19, 2011 at 11:13 AM
Reminds me a similar argument. Should we support or oppose tax loopholes? Some Libertarians claim tax loopholes are mini bits of freedom. I say we abolish all tax loopholes in favor of a much reduced tax rate for every producer.

Regarding charters and the destruction of private school? Reminds me of a conversation I had with 3 senior citizen limited government folks. I suggested vouchers and they about flipped. They said government control follows government money. I simply said, don’t accept the money if you don’t want it. Secondly, government education monopoly will destroy the private market eventually anyways.

At the end of the day, The Feds need to be completely removed from education. State education should be minimalized and county may fund some schools however there is absolutely no reason why education cannot be totally privatized. Sure some will not educate in the tradition of current standards. Put them to work, oh yea we also have to abolish child labor laws.

Go to Khan Academy if you do not believe me. Free, non government education is here. It is waiting for the Statist to get out of the way.

Jeff

Anonymous commented June 20, 2011 at 8:11 AM
More to the point,

So long as there is taxation for education, vouchers should be the norm. What better way to illustrate the benefits of choice and competition.

To ignore vouchers is to protect status quo. Status quo is the destruction of humanity.

Jeff

Ari commented June 20, 2011 at 9:42 AM
The alternate view, Jeff, is that taxation for education is the status quo, and vouchers are a meaningless variation of that.

Anonymous commented June 20, 2011 at 10:10 AM
Ari,

I see vouchers as an argument against education taxation. Many small schools will result, ultimately destroying the government monopoly.

Jeff

mike250 commented June 21, 2011 at 8:56 PM
quite the opposite, the vouchers will just result in a greater monopoly. its just a pragmatic approach and I think education philosophy comes first.

Vouchers Undermine Liberty

With Colorado conservatives all atwitter over Douglas County’s adoption of a voucher program (see the Denver Post and 9News), now might be a good time to pause and consider whether vouchers advance liberty or undermine it.

Recently Michael LaFerrara has argued that a voucher program “is a statist ‘Trojan Horse’ set to destroy the private nature of private schools,” whereas a good tax credit program (along the lines of Colorado’s bill 1048) “is a means to more parental choice and less government interference in education.”

I have three main concerns with vouchers.

1. Vouchers put otherwise-private schools under heavier government controls. To take but one example from the present case, “The district also added a provision… to allow students to opt out of religious instruction at religion-based schools,” the Post reports. But presumably many of the leaders of those schools regard the religious instruction as fundamental to their school’s mission. Parents and schools should be free to agree on the terms of a child’s education (within the bounds of that child’s rights) without political interference.

2. Vouchers force people to finance religious institutions against their will. Secularists are forced to subsidize religious schools, Buddhists and Muslims are forced to subsidize Christian schools, etc. That’s wrong. The freedom of conscience, of which free speech is an aspect, entails the rightnot to support, monetarily or otherwise, the propagation of ideas with which one disagrees.

3. Vouchers entrench the welfare state. Whereas a tax credit reduces a person’s tax burden, and thus involves that person’s own money, a voucher forcibly transfers wealth. Vouchers thus sanction the propriety of forcing some people to fund the education of others. Obviously this is a big problem for anybody who advocates the individual right to control one’s own income and resources. If we take property rights seriously, then we must recognize the right of each individual to voluntarily contribute funds to any educational program he chooses — or to no educational program at all. (Obviously parents have an obligation to provide for their own children’s education.)

For more on this issue, please see the recent article from my dad and me,“How About School Choice for Everyone?”

***

John Galt commented March 16, 2011 at 2:01 PM
Agreed. Vouchers are not perfect. And yes a completely voluntary system with no taxation is preferable. BUT.

Given that that just isn’t going to ever happen while people value slavery and altruism, working within the system is the only way to do so. And vouchers are as far as we’re going to get within a system that assumes that poor people must be assisted or their kids won’t go to school.

We have to remember that Obamacare simply steals the current education funding model: Have everyone pay in, regardless of if they use the system or not, thus making it more “affordable” for those that do use the system. It’s just clearly a tax and not a mandate with fines.

What vouchers do is create competition. They also break unions because there isn’t one source to deal with. Further, they break the corrupt system of electing your own employer.

What it doesn’t do is guarantee that the government is going to stay out. I would say that the only voucher system that will work, is one where schools can opt out of taking vouchers (stay completely private), can determine their own curriculum and simply have to meet minimum standards based on national standardized testing AND NOTHING MORE. (and opting out is not a pre-requisite for any of the above)

Perhaps the best way is that schools that want to opt out of vouchers result in the parents getting a tax credit for the entire amount that they paid in for education up to the amount of the voucher (i.e. the tax would have to be clearly earmarked and not allowed to be touched by anything else) which of course with the exception of all but the very most rich would be lower than the amount of a voucher. If the school chooses not to opt out, then they have to ahere to non-secular principles and not teach religion and would be subject to the constitution and the bill of rights as a result of taking public money.

By doing so, schools could opt out, have no government interference, and those parents would not be using tax dollars to fund a Muslim school for example, while still ensuring that socialists would be ok with it, because they could still “Take care” of the “poor kids”.

One thing is for sure though. Vouchers are better than the status quo, and the best we can hope for given the flawed (and stupid) value system of most of America. The question then becomes, do we want to force the system to blow up, or do we want to incrementally fix it over time? John Galt or Dagney Tagart up until the final act? And only your assessment of how far down the hell hole we have gone can determine your position on that…

Ari commented March 16, 2011 at 2:56 PM
Letting the system “blow up” is a false alternative to expanding political controls over education through vouchers. I’ve already indicated that tax credits, now on the table, are far superior to vouchers. Beyond that, there are many ways to incrementally reform education: disempower the teacher’s unions within existing tax-funded schools, promote home-schooling and private schooling, etc.

John Galt commented March 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM
Tax credits do not work. 50% of the population doesn’t pay any income tax. That same 50% don’t own homes, so giving property tax credits is pointless too. Thus this system only benefits the “rich” and puts the “burden” on the “poor” parents.

Given that essentially all of the American population believes in Altruism, you’re not going to get anyone to agree in any numbers that would pass the bill, to a system that does not pay 100% of the bill for every kid in the system. There is no chance and I’m sure you know it. (I’ll ignore home schooling because that’s just silly considering most families must have two incomes to barely get by, and private schooling for essentially the same reason)

Thus you have to decide to play with what you can get through (vouchers is the only alternative currently on the table that can pass a state legislature) or just throw up your hands, recognize that the legitement position is never going to happen unless everything collapses and then help it along.

Come up with a system where 100% of all of the “poor” families have their kids’ education 100% paid for that isn’t vouchers, and you might have a winner. Until then, vouchers is it. Hence I push for vouchers because it’s better than nothing and hopefully will prove to people that competition is a good thing and that capitalism works. And that will get you to the next argument.

Ari commented March 17, 2011 at 11:35 AM
Dear “John Galt,” First, you’re nothing like John Galt. Second, I’m not going to post any more snarky, insulting messages from you. Third, you are fundamentally misrepresenting my position, which is not to “throw up my hands” and do nothing. Passing a voucher law that EXPANDS government control of education is not compatible with free-market competition or capitalism, nor have you even attempted to counter my arguments to that effect. There are many, many ways to advance liberty in education, but vouchers are counter-productive. -Ari

Anonymous commented March 17, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Ari,

Let us focus on your #2. I agree secularist should not have to fund religious schools but what about the opposite? Religious folk are forced to fund your secular schools.

Why does Ari consider forced taxation from secular folk given to religious folk less moral than forced taxation of religious folk given to secular people?

Both situations are equally reprehensible.

The pro abortion, pro secular report you helped create seems to advocate theft so long as it is used for secular education and not for religious education. Your # 2 issue reiterates your taxpayer funded secular education stance.

The taxpayer should fund neither or both.

Ari commented March 17, 2011 at 12:38 PM
Dear Anonymous, Whey are they suddenly “my” tax-funded schools? I do not advocate tax funding for any school. I advocate the complete separation of school and state. However, the First Amendment rightly precludes tax funding for religious purposes, so that is an additional barrier. But I quite agree it violates the rights of religious people to force them to finance a secular agenda. (I have no idea which “report” you have in mind.) -Ari

Anonymous commented March 22, 2011 at 8:44 AM
Nothing could be more against the free exercise of religion than forcing taxpayers to fund public schools, then forcing religious taxpayers to pay for education twice — if they want their kids in religious schools. Blaine Amendments cause subsidies for secularists, penalties for the religious.

Read more: http://www.gazette.com/articles/education-114813-bigotry-board.html#ixzz1HL7Rn0J4

AriM commented arch 22, 2011 at 8:48 AM
So your argument, Anonymous, is that two wrongs make a right?

cawrigh commented March 23, 2011 at 5:14 AM
Joh Galt wrote, “Tax credits do not work. 50% of the population doesn’t pay any income tax.”

This objection is easily overcome by allowing people and corporations that do pay income tax to claim the tax credit if they donate money to educate children.

Chuck Wright

How About School Choice for Everyone?

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published by Grand Junction Free Press.

While President Obama delivered the State of the Union address in the District of Columbia, pundit and author Michelle Malkin discussed school choice at Vanguard charter school in Colorado Springs. They had rather different ideas about the state of American education and how to improve it.

Obama pointed out that, even though many American schools lag in graduation rates and math and science outcomes, some politically operated schools perform relatively well. Obama mentioned Bruce Randolph school in Denver, where community involvement and administrative reforms dramatically improved performance in recent years.

Obama believes federal programs play a central role in the functioning of American schools. The president looks for marginal reforms within the context of the traditional public school system.

Malkin, whose mother taught in New Jersey public schools, moved to Colorado largely because of the strong charter system here. She told the crowd at Vanguard, “I am your neighbor, and I’m so proud to be a resident of Colorado Springs. But more importantly, [I am] an incredibly fortunate beneficiary of people’s commitment to excellence in education here in this city.”

Malkin painted a disturbing portrait of American education, saying, “One in ten high schools in America is a ‘drop out factory.'” Mind-crushing fads sweep through many of the rest. Despite some noteworthy exceptions, generally American schools suffer stagnant test scores even as their funding soars. Malkin said the typical leftist approach of throwing more money at education has bought us “cash for education clunkers.”

In response to Obama’s line about our “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the 1957 Soviet space launch, Malkin said the real similarity between us and the Soviets is that “we still have a Soviet-style, government-run schools monopoly.” So what do we do about it?

Many Colorado parents have turned to charter schools, still funded by taxpayers and governed by politicians but granted relatively more autonomy. Parents here can choose among all public schools relatively easily.

But the fundamental barrier to meaningful choice in education is that parents are forced to finance public schools. If they choose a private school, they must pay double: once for the public school they do not use, and once for the private school.

That is the reason why many conservatives, notably the late economist Milton Friedman, advocate vouchers. Recently the Douglas County school board caused a commotion by promising (or, as the left would put it, threatening) to study voucher programs.

A voucher allows a parent to direct a portion of the school tax funds to any school that qualifies under the program. The basic problem with vouchers is that they spend tax money on otherwise private schools, which might teach controversial ideas like religion.

An alternative to vouchers is a tax credit for education. This allows parents to enroll their child in any qualifying school and reduce their state tax burden by an amount determined by law. A more expansive tax credit allows any taxpayer to save on taxes by funding a scholarship for any child. This year Republican legislators Spencer Swalm and Kevin Lundberg introduced Bill 1048 to create such tax credits.

We propose giving taxpayers even more choice. Each taxpayer pays a certain amount for education through various taxes. Whatever that amount is, the taxpayer should be able to decide where that money goes. A taxpayer could decide to direct all the money to a single private school, a single public school, or any combination of schools.

Our plan would give people the incentive to evaluate schools and direct their money to wherever they think it will be spent most effectively.

For example, we are outraged that tax dollars support the Denver Green School, which indoctrinates children into the cult of environmentalism. As the Denver Post recently reported, teachers at this school led children in creating a power-point presentation condemning energy use. (Nevermind the fact that the presentation consumed electricity; this cult hardly values consistency.)

Under our proposal, those who wish to finance the leftist indoctrination of children could do so, while the rest of us could direct our resources to schools that teach children things like math and history.

Note that our proposal does not really give the taxpayer full choice over his or her resources. Even our plan falls short of the standard of individual rights and free markets, for it requires people to direct a portion of their resources to schools. Real liberty means people can spend their earnings however they wish, whether for schools, medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas.

The left recoils at the very mention of real liberty. Even legislation allowing taxpayers to direct all their school-related taxes to the schools of their choice would give the teachers’ unions heart palpitations.

Nevertheless, we’ll go ahead and say it: each individual has the right to control his own earnings, and he should be able to fund any school he wishes, or no school at all. Call it a Liberty Moment.

***

Anonymous commented February 4, 2011 at 12:12 PM
Vouchers are *anti*-liberty. It sounds good to say that people should be able to use their money as they see fit, but what does its use entail? More government control of private schools.

We already have school vouchers in a major sector of American education: higher education. Federal student financial aid, in the form of loans and grants, is now ubiquitous.

Once a school accepts federal aid, it is obligated to comply with a variety of federal regulations, everything from anti-discrimination requirements to Title IX athletic regulations, and everywhere in between.

At least in higher education, there is a tradition of “academic freedom,” which gives professors nominal control over the curriculum. But in publicly funded K-12 education, states have long exercised curriculum oversight. Do you really want to see that oversight extended to private K-12 schools?

The only hope for education in America is a competitive private K-12 alternative that is completely unfettered by the latest educational methodology fads, such as are usually mandated in public schools. We see this today in the success of schools like the Van Damme Academy and the LePort schools. This innovation would not last long if private schools began to rely on federal funding, and took the strings that would inevitably be attached.

Perhaps you mean only to be arguing for something like tax credits for education, which might not entail the same amount of likely government control over curriculum. But vouchers, at least as they are typically touted by conservatives, offer no barrier to the kind of abuse I cite above.

Indeed it is not characteristic of conservatives to tout anything other than vouchers, because mostwant to control schools in line with conservative–i.e., usually religious–ideology. Michelle Malkin is no exception.

NS

Anonymous commented March 17, 2011 at 12:40 PM
“The basic problem with vouchers is that they spend tax money on otherwise private schools, which might teach controversial ideas like religion.”

Controversial ideas such as evolution.

We will never agree so why not less us choose what is best for our children?

If you refuse to fund parochial education then please sponsor a bill that would allow me to opt out of your secular, satanic school system.

I pay for your hell school via property taxes, vehicle taxes and a myriad of other streams.

Please allow me to completely opt out.

Ari commented March 17, 2011 at 12:45 PM
Dear March 17 Anonymous, You might help your case by first not sounding crazy. My “secular, satanic” schools? Come on, dude. (I would not ordinarily have posted such a ludicrous comment, except I thought it worth illustrating how insane the religious right often sounds.) And, if you’d bother to actually read the article before posting a comment, you might notice that I do in fact want to allow you to stop funding secular schools. -Ari