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

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.


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

Ben DeGrow Seeks Education Reform

Ben DeGrow, the Independence Institute’s top education reformer, discusses opting out of union dues. He also reviews the impact of the three recent documentaries on education, “The Cartel,” “The Lottery,” and “Waiting for Superman” (which he has seen since granting this interview).

DeGrow said the films are “definitely creating a greater awareness of the problems surrounding education. The problem is whether it will create the political will for policy makers to actually implement real, lasting solutions, things that begin with parental choice, school vouchers, and true market-based accountability… rather than the same old status quo.”

Tancredo On Education

I caught up with Tom Tancredo after his August 4 appearance at Liberty On the Rocks to ask him about his first signature issue: education.

Check back soon for more videos of Tancredo.



Brian S. August 10, 2010 at 9:34 PM
Interesting observation that some parents do not want the choice and responsibility to choose a school for their child. Scary.

Re. charter schools, be careful. They threaten truly private schools in a similar way that vouchers can. Check out this Cato blog post:
“Charters Kill Private Schools and Add to Taxpayer Burden”:

Schools Deal with the Devil

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.

CO Constitution Requires Tax-Funded Schools Three Months Per Year

The Colorado Supreme Court is totally out of control. As Clear the Bench details, the court’s latest outrage is to allow a legal suit to force taxpayers to send more of their hard-earned money to government schools.

As Vincent Carroll summarizes, the suit would “undermine democracy and the separation of powers in Colorado.”

The Denver Post’s Tim Hoover nicely reviews the case. He writes, “Kathy Gebhardt, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the school-funding suit, said… courts would have to determine whether the right to a ‘thorough and uniform’ education funding system outweighs the right of citizens to vote on taxes.”

But why should the courts get to establish what constitutes a “thorough and uniform” education? As Carroll and others note, the state’s Constitution explicitly grants funding authority to the general assembly.

However, there is another telling line in the same provision that indicates what the document’s authors thought consistent with a “thorough and uniform” education: the line requiring schools “at least three months in each year.” Obviously, dramatically less tax spending on education is consistent with this part of the Constitution.

Here is the entire bit from Article IX:

Section 2. Establishment and maintenance of public schools.

The general assembly shall, as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously. One or more public schools shall be maintained in each school district within the state, at least three months in each year; any school district failing to have such school shall not be entitled to receive any portion of the school fund for that year.

No Tax Funds for Religious Schools

David Card, “president of Escuela de Guadalupe, an independent Catholic, dual-language school in northwest Denver,” made a series of astounding comments in an article for the Denver Post today.

Card argues that some religious schools “are effective in developing Colorado standards-based academic proficiency in subjects like math, reading and science, and in producing high school graduates.” No doubt. But then Card adds, “Clearly, the state has an interest in this.”

Clearly, Card has lost his faculties. The government’s job is to protect people’s rights, not dictate education policy for private schools. Many parents flee to private schools precisely to get away from political interference. Card would extend that interference to schools that are currently private.

Card argues that the state — i.e., politicians — should finance religious schools (presumably including his own). He pretends that politicians can force other Coloradans to finance only “non-sectarian efforts” by religious schools. The division is impossible. A religious school of necessity infuses its entire program with its ideological premises.

I left the following comments online:

“No person shall be required to attend or support any ministry or place of worship, religious sect or denomination against his consent.” — Colorado Constitution, Article II, Section 4

Forcing a person to finance a religious institution, against his will, violates his freedom of conscience and right to property. Moreover, no conscientious religious school would willingly accept the political interference that inevitably follows political funding.

Separation of School and State Alliance Conference 1998

This archival article originally was published by the Colorado Freedom Report. Converted articles may be edited and differently formatted from the originals. This article was converted to AriArmstrong.com on July 18, 2018. The publication date reflects the approximate initial publication date. Please see the notes on the archives. See also the relaunched Colorado Freedom Report.


I went to “SepCon,” the conference of The Separation of School and State Alliance held November ’98 in Colorado Springs, feeling a little nervous that I wouldn’t quite fit in with the program. Alliance founder Marshall Fritz, himself a dedicated Catholic, framed the topic of this year’s conference as “Do ‘public schools’ undermine your religious beliefs so much that you should remove your children?” To those who, like me, don’t consider themselves adherents of any particular religion, this question seems beside the point when it comes to the politics of government schools.

While I never quite got over feeling that some sessions of the conference were off the mark, and while I heard ideas from some of the more conservative of the theists that, frankly, frighten me, I also learned to appreciate the diversity of knowledge and opinion that Fritz managed to assemble, and I gained a fairly good understanding of his strategy. I examine the relationship of religion to Fritz’s organization, along with the question of whether his strategies for Separation will work, in a later section.

A question central to the conference was whether Christian parents ought to send their children to Christian schools. Many at the conference stated that a particularly Christian education is indeed appropriate or even a moral imperative. Others disagreed with the notion that education should take a particular religious slant. What argument, then, might those who don’t want a religious education find compelling in the issue of separating schools from the State?

Critics of Separation see religious education as a bad idea, and they want the State to require citizens to pay for non-religious education for those who want it. Fritz invited several such critics—others showed up of their own accord—and libertarians involved with the issue of education would do well to pay attention to the criticisms and consider them thoughtfully. The critics earn their own section in the present series of articles.

The libertarians found plenty to argue about among themselves, though. In particular, school vouchers and tax-credits found both ardent support and vehement opposition.

The final section of the series focuses on the closing speech given by John Taylor Gatto, who suggested that the purpose of government schools during this century has been to churn out masses of “mindless consumers.” Gatto, a fascinating and awe-inspiring man, raised a host of pivotal issues in his talk.

The closing dinner, however, was almost surreal. (It probably didn’t help my emotional state that I was quite exhausted by this time, having been sick before the conference and busy throughout it.) The dinner ran painfully behind schedule with a botched awards ceremony and a long, pointless prelude. (Oh, and Fritz canceled the 1999 SepCon for fear of “Y2K” problems.) Gatto began about an hour late, about 9:45, and the advanced hour may have combined with exhaustion after re-writing his speech — lost with luggage by his air service — to render the speaker incapable of concluding his presentation. Gatto had to sit and then lie down as Fritz read the conclusion while offering a veiled exorcism in the process. It was certainly the most bizarre and frightening conclusion to any conference I’ve yet attended. Fortunately, Gatto was not seriously ill, and the audience got to hear a most provocative talk.

In all, I found the conference exhilarating and thought-provoking. My discussions with the scholarly theists gave me a fresh perspective on a wide number of issues. The supporters of government schools raised thoughtful objections, and at least pointed out the types of arguments libertarians need to make more effectively. I met new friends from Colorado and around the country. Even though SepCon may not be held in Colorado again, I would recommend future conferences to libertarians interested in education.

You the reader are welcome to move on to the discussion in the following set of articles. [Note: What originally appeared as distinct web pages now appear as sections in this unified document.] Each part can be read as a self-contained unit. Taken together, the pieces will offer a fairly comprehensive view of SepCon ’98 and of the Separation issue generally.

Religion, Separation, and Fritz’s Strategies

Marshall Fritz, head of the Alliance, holds that all aspects of life should be directed toward a Christian purpose. Judging from the time I’ve spent around him, he tends not to be particularly subtle or reserved about this point. It was not surprising to me, then, that he chose to give the ’98 SepCon a more religious bent. SepCon was held in Colorado Springs largely because the town is a haven for conservative Christians like those at Focus on the Family. In fact, participants at the conference were invited to tour the facilities of that organization.

Fritz embraces the cooperation of those of all intellectual stripes, though. He is by no means shy about voicing his opinion, but he is also respectful of alternate views and always ready to engage in sincere debate.

One panel early in the conference included a Jew, Yarden Weidenfeld; a Christian, R.C. Sproul, Jr.; and a Muslim, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad; all of whom argued for getting the government out of education. I was struck not only by the significance of the historical succession, but also by the overwhelming sense of benevolence and camaraderie among the participants.

Walter Olson in the November ’98 Reason Magazine takes Fritz to task for inviting Christian Reconstructionists to his conferences. (Through a series of quotes from the sect’s members, Olson notes that some people in the Reconstructionist movement have called for the political suppression of non-Christian religions and for public executions for a wide variety of “sins,” including homosexuality and blasphemy.) However, Fritz has also invited atheists, pantheists, and supporters of State education, including Bill Spady of Outcome Based Education fame.

While such Reconstructionists as R.J. Rushdoony have signed Fritz’s “Proclamation for the Separation of School and State,” so have such relative main-streamers as new Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, CATO’s David Boaz, and George H. Smith. (Interestingly, Fritz claims early influence on the Separation issue from Smith, who is a social-liberal libertarian, an admirer of Ayn Rand, and the author of Atheism: The Case Against God.) Still, in reference to the Reconstructionists, we must weigh Olson’s reservation: “How serious do differences have to become before it becomes inappropriate to overlook them in an otherwise good cause?”

In a quote collected by Olson I simply must reproduce here, Gary North, a Reconstructionist and Editor of Remnant Review, a newsletter which worries about “Y2K” and global economic meltdown, actually calls for his future theocracy to forcibly restrict freedom in education (and everything else):

So let us be blunt about it… We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

So much for liberty. However, Reverend Ellsworth McIntyre, an admitted Reconstructionist, the owner of several private schools, and the author of How To Become a Millionaire in Christian Education (a title purposely intended to strike some Christians as peculiar), told me at SepCon ’98 that North is not representative of the Reconstructionist movement, saying, “Gary’s a controversial guy.” According to McIntyre, the Reconstructionist movement “takes no direct political advocacy views.” While this is anything but a firm denial of the beliefs North expresses, it also suggests that Reconstructionists aren’t necessarily homogeneous in their thinking.

SepCon certainly was not overwhelmed by conservative Christian theism. Some sessions dealt with issues like evolution and the Bible “as literature,” but most covered issues of interest to a broader audience. Subjects included accreditation, Constitutionality, vouchers, and history.

Two of my favorite lectures covered the history of philosophy, presented by Christians but from an academic perspective. Charles MacKenzie, former President of Grove City College (which spent millions in court fighting Federal intrusions), gave a talk on Rousseau, while Vincent Fitzpatrick discussed the works of Paul Quay, a recent philosopher of Catholic persuasion.

So what is the significance of the religious bent of SepCon ’98? In my view, the strong religious emphasis poses at least a couple of serious problems. First, it tends to lead the casual outsider to associate the Separation movement, which is much broader than Fritz’s organization, with conservative Christianity. (I almost wrote, “fundamentalist Christianity,” but Fritz explained to me that “fundamentalism” refers only to a narrow range of conservative, highly devoted Christians.) I saw this confusion with the supporters of government schools Fritz invited. This doesn’t help to ward off stereotypes of libertarians as “right-wing.” Of course, Fritz is under no obligation to run an “umbrella” group, but it does worry me that the “alliance” aspect of his organization is weighted toward Christian theists.

A second problem with the religious emphasis of SepCon ’98 is that people both supportive and dismissive of private education tend to think only of particularly Christian reasons for getting the government out of education. Personally, I’m not greatly offended by “sex education,” and I want evolution taught in the classrooms (not as dogma, but as testable science). “Creation science” strikes me as oxymoronic. Over and over various speakers decried the “humanism” in today’s government schools, but that to my mind is not an issue of concern. I want Separation of school and State, but in order to root out Statist indoctrination and inept bureaucracy so children will have the opportunity to learn to their full potential. It strikes me that the arguments which appeal to me have a better chance of appealing to the broader population.

For some at Fritz’s conference, the goal is not so much free-market education as Christian education. The free-market part of it is only an after-thought. This may be cause to worry. It is, after all, the Protestants who first supported government education, to suppress the Catholicism of immigrants. (Fritz, himself a Catholic among a majority of Protestants, did not stress this point.) To the extent that Gary North’s ideas resonate with others, the fact the hard-core Christians seem unlikely to regain cultural dominance is reason to cheer.

Some of the Christians at the conference made caricatures of their opponents, thereby making it easy for the main-stream to caricature the market education movement, or at least the Christian wing of the movement. On several occasions and from several speakers, I heard the view that Christianity stands on one side of the cultural divide, while a package of atheism, relativism, Marxism, “secular-humanism,” Post Modernism, and hedonism stands on the other. This view is a gross over-simplification. Earlier in the summer, I had heard a lecture from an atheistic, libertarian, humanistic, ethically principled Objectivist philosopher who criticized essentially the same list of Post Modern thinkers as did the Christian David Noebel at SepCon.

Even though the religious bent of Fritz’s organization creates some difficulties, Christians and those in other religions obviously have a stake in Separation. Fritz actively seeks the support and participation of all groups, but for strategic reasons he is pursuing the Christians with particular vigor.

Fritz sees the various Christian groups as particularly alienated from the present system of government schools. Issues of evolution, sex education, and non- or anti-Christian teaching render Christians more susceptible than most to the notion of Separation. Not only that, but Christians are fairly well organized, making the task of “spreading the word” easier. In Fritz’s words, “When you go fishing, go where the water is.”

According to Fritz’s theory, which I find basically compelling, our task in getting the government out of education is to attract those parents “at the margins” of Separation who are nearly ready to place their children in private education. Once the number of students in private education increases, a new group of parents will be closer to “the margin.” At some point, a “critical mass” will be reached, and the government control of schools will come tumbling down like the walls of Berlin.

Fritz, then, is banking on there being enough Christians currently “at the margins” to lead to this “critical mass.” This is where I fear the theory may fall apart.

I can think of several possible ways the idea might fail, in terms of getting the government out of education. First, the Christians could gain such political momentum that they would simply push their will onto the government schools. Former Congressman William Dannemeyer advocated just this approach at the conference. Second, the State-education establishment might get wise and put enough Christian stuff back into government schools to lure back the Christians. “Well, I guess we can teach Creation along with evolution. I suppose we can have silent prayers in school.” I fear that if the focus is on Christian rather than libertarian goals, just this end might result.

Fritz has been careful to talk about the “sin of over-rendering:” the surrender of one’s parental responsibility to the State. Fritz argues that parents should turn neither the responsibility of controlling the curriculum nor the responsibility of financing education over to the government. I like Fritz’s argument, and I hope it “sticks” among Christians. If it does, this will prevent Christians from being lured back to “Christian-friendly” government schools. However, Christians have not traditionally been overly hesitant about enforcing their version of “responsibility” on others; hopefully conservative, non-libertarian Christians will remain a small enough minority that they won’t be able to theocratize the State.

A third potential problem with Fritz’s strategy is that the general culture might become so alienated from the Christian schools that they look on private education with increasing disdain. This might prevent the attainment of “critical mass.” Fritz told me bluntly that his religious focus may well alienate some non-Christians. On the other hand, perhaps the religious schools will focus on solid, universal education rather than on religious dogma, so that even the private Christian schools will appeal to the non-theistic masses. This seems to me a likely outcome — today’s Christian schools frequently do a good job of educating their students.

I should note in closing this section that the focus of SepCon varies year to year. While Fritz will always invite many religious speakers, the future emphasis may well shift to more “secular” concerns.

Political Vs. Cultural Separation

One of the prominent themes at the 1998 Separation of School and State Alliance Conference in Colorado Springs was that Christian parents should offer their children a Christian education. Similarly, Yarden Weidenfeld argued that Jewish children need a Jewish education.

These theists argue that life cannot be “compartmentalized.” That is, one cannot learn about “the world” part of the time and “religion” the rest of the time. Rather, all of one’s life should center around God. As Marshall Fritz has put it, religion should be central in “Monday school” as well as in “Sunday school.”

Fritz, then, argues for the voluntary cultural separation of children by “world views,” as well as for the Separation of School and State. However, he certainly does not want a general cultural separation. Indeed, Fritz’s SepCon was a model of open acceptance, cooperation among diverse people, and rational tolerance, where people of many philosophical persuasions and ethnic backgrounds gathered to discuss ideas. Fritz commented to me that there are “age-appropriate times for growth.” In his opinion, a young child should not be subjected to “world views” which would radically undermine those of the parents.

I disagree with Fritz as to the extent children should be separated by “world views.” In a discussion on the Alliance e-mail list, I noted that learning the Pythagorean theorem doesn’t require any particular religious background. Megan Day, a SepCon participant skeptical of the entire endeavor, made a similar point with the fact “two plus two equals four,” which also seems to fit fairly well with most religious beliefs.

Fritz has responded that the reason one learns that “two plus two equals four” is religious in nature. What if a student asks, “Why does two plus two equal four,” or “Why should we learn that two plus two equals four?” These questions obviously require a more philosophical answer. R.C. Sproul, Jr. added in casual discussion that some Post Moderns would indeed doubt the truth even of such a simple theorem from addition, and he certainly would not want the Post Modern “world view” taught to his children.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, President of the Islamic Minaret of Freedom Institute, though not opposed to separating children by religious affiliation, also saw value in intellectual diversity. In Ahmad’s view, voluntary “affirmative action” might even be a useful way to draw more diversity to a school to benefit the children’s education. “Not everybody believes what we believe,” said Ahmad. If children are segregated by religion, they should at least “be taught about other ways of life,” Ahmad noted. Others’ beliefs should be presented accurately so children will not learn to doubt their teachers. About the virtues of open discussion, Ahmad said that “if one’s ideas are true, they should withstand debate.”

John and Carol Geltemeyer, SepCon participants from Colorado Springs and Libertarian Party activists, saw potential problems with Christian education. John said, “Christian education is still instilling a student-teacher dependency,” like today’s government schools. In other words, the danger is in students learning to accept others’ opinions rather than to think clearly for themselves. As Carol put it, “If we teach students to accept our indoctrination, we teach them to accept the indoctrination of others.” Of course, with practically every “world view” comes the danger of indoctrinating rather than teaching. It is a tendency that everyone must guard against.

Obviously, parents must have some fundamental agreements with a potential teacher of their children. As Fritz put it, “you’d be crazy” to send a child to a Nazi training camp. If a teacher suggests that “two plus two doesn’t equal four,” I’ll most likely keep my child out of that school. In one of his sessions, Professor Charles MacKenzie suggested that a healthy Christianity balances reason with faith. Such Christians, I suspect, should be comfortable sending their children to school with the children of those of us who reject religion but who respect a basic rationality.

As to Fritz’s question, “What should a teacher tell a student who asks why two plus two equals four or why we should learn it,” I would respond that a teacher is quite capable of explaining alternate answers to that question (without implying “relativism”) or simply referring the question to the parents. Beyond that, a teacher can offer some universal answers to the questions, acceptable to those of most philosophical persuasions.

In the end, I agree with Leonard Peikoff, an Objectivist philosopher, that if children are taught to employ sound, critical reasoning, their thinking will tend to be self-corrective, even if they are initially taught incorrect content. If children are taught to read, write, calculate, and think for themselves, instead of subjected to indoctrination, I believe that intellectual diversity in education will prove highly beneficial to education itself.

Critics of Separation

On the first afternoon of SepCon ’98 (Thursday, November 12), opponents and supporters of separating schools from the State shared a panel discussion which became rather heated when the audience started asking questions.

Ron Nash of the Reformed Theological Seminary started the session with the claim that the Christian “world view” is incompatible with the “world view” found within the government schools. Yarden Weidenfeld later expressed a similar opinion about the Jewish world view. “Judaism is all-encompassing,” Weidenfeld noted.

Nash discussed some aspects of modern government schools which would shock most theists and upset many atheists as well. Nash quoted one school text that flagrantly supports casual, non-committal sex. Many of Nash’s arguments were broader yet: he claimed that government schools have rendered many of their students functionally and culturally illiterate. Unfortunately, these broader arguments were largely lost as the discussion progressed.

Many of the problems with the session arose from the way the topic was framed: “Are ‘public’ schools undermining most religious families?” With supporters and opponents of government schools on the panel, the debate naturally moved away from this narrow topic to the broader issue of whether government schooling is a good idea. Unfortunately, with the blending of these two issues, much of the discussion found little direction. As I’ve noted in a previous section, the issue of whether government schools undermine religion is irrelevant to the broader population that simply doesn’t care. The universal arguments relevant to government schools per se were largely drowned out.

Jane Urschel, a member of the Colorado Association of School Boards, followed Nash and Weidenfeld with the point that school boards are at least somewhat responsive to the needs of parents. Thus, the “horror stories” cited by Nash shouldn’t be taken as representative of government schools. Jane Behnke, Director of the Colorado Education Association (the regional branch of the NEA), made a similar point, noting that she is unaware of such “horrors” in Colorado. In fairness, I should note that I was not exposed to such “horrors” in the government school I attended in Palisade, Colorado, where I graduated in 1990.

The broader point, however, was never made: even though school boards and the political process make government schools somewhat responsive to parents, a free market is completely and immediately responsive to the needs of parents and students. To draw an analogy, if we had to go through a political “grocery board” to improve our grocery service, we could probably make some headway. The political process, though, is a complete waste of time and only moderately successful, relative to the market.

Urschel next offered the worn cliché: “Public [i.e., government] education is the cornerstone of democracy.” This, of course, immediately drew gasps and “tsks” from the audience.

The comment, and the reaction which followed, revealed a serious flaw in the structure of the panel. Fritz perhaps erred by placing government school bureaucrats on a panel with scholars in front of a well-informed audience. It was fairly clear from the discussion that Urschel knew little of the history of government education and had spent little time mulling over the subtleties and paradoxes of the ambitious term, “democracy.” None of this was Urschel’s fault; she was a pleasant woman and indeed quite generous to join the panel as a replacement speaker at the last moment. A far more fruitful and less uncomfortable panel would have matched the libertarian scholars with Statist scholars. Not only would the discussion have been less upsetting to the guests, but the libertarians in the audience would not have gained a false sense of superiority. I know there are apologists of government schools who could keep pace with any libertarian.

At any rate, the discussion, whatever its problems, raised several pivotal issues. Perhaps Ahmad framed the issue of “democracy” most cogently later in the session. Many mean by democracy simply the rule of law, including the protection of minorities’ rights. In this sense, “democracy” is taken to mean what others might take “republic” to mean—a system of individual rights, strictly limited government, and self-sovereignty.

On the other hand, noted Ahmad, “democracy” can also mean “majority rule,” the system where the majority presumes to decide what is morally right. This is the meaning Cathy Duffy (Citizen’s Scholarship Fund, Los Angeles) attributed to the term when she blasted “democracy” as a bad system of government. Schools, then, Duffy argued, should not be the “bedrock” of democracy, but rather the bedrock of the republican form of government established by the American forefathers. Duffy’s use of the terms is closer to the historical use.

Urschel clearly intended the term “democracy” to mean majority rule rather than individual rights or the rule of law. Within the State, claimed Urschel, we need to “balance the needs of the one with the needs of the many.” Or, to put the idea in a slightly less sympathetic way, we can’t let individual rights stand in the way of the power of the State. To drive her point home, Urschel noted, “We belong to a form of government bigger than us all.” Well, this is not the government of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, for whom proper government existed only to protect the rights of the individual. Unfortunately, Urschel’s words are fairly accurate today.

(Here’s a question for you trivia buffs. Who said, “It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation?” The answer is found below.)

Urschel is also stunningly accurate, though quite by accident, in her evaluation of government schools: they are indeed the “bedrock of democracy” in its majority rule sense. Modern democracy is characterized by class warfare; pervasive, mutual looting (with tax rates around half of GDP); and rule by special interests. These are indeed precisely the characteristics of modern government schools.

This brings us to another point raised by Behnke: “[Government] schools are reflective of what society wants and what our country is.” In other words, if government schools are bad, they are bad because of the influences of the culture generally. This is at odds with the point made earlier by Urschel, that government schools perpetuate modern democracy. Nash concluded by siding with Urschel, arguing that schools do indeed change society. Which side of the argument is right? Both are. Surely causality runs in both directions. Schools are the way they are because of the culture in which they are built, and schools also contribute to the nature of that culture.

A full awareness of the concept of “reciprocal causality,” as Chris Matthew Sciabarra (author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical) has called it, sheds light on the movement for getting the government out of education. By working toward a greater cultural acceptance of market education, we help to change the structure of the schools. By changing the structure of the schools, we build a healthier culture.

Behnke continued her presentation by arguing against “segregation” in education. On this point, I heartily agree with Behnke. I do not believe that getting the government out of education will result in segregated education; the value of learning from people of different backgrounds is simply too great for diversity not to thrive in the market. Indeed, I believe that market education will overturn the segregation of modern government schools. The government schools segregate students by strict classifications of age, learning “ability,” geographical boundaries, alleged psychological problems, and so forth. These counter-productive segregatory practices will tend to break down in market education.

Behnke’s final point was that, while government schools earlier in the century may have manifested the “command-and-control” model, today’s government schools are focusing on critical thinking. But are they? Nash made a fairly good case that today’s government schools are turning out many students who can barely write, who learn inadequate math skills, and who know little about U.S. or world history. This discussion, the real meat of the issue, was underdeveloped by both sides.

Both supporters and opponents of government schools need to realize that the issue of efficacy is by nature relativistic: libertarians need only prove that market education will work better than government education. Libertarians don’t have to argue that government education is completely terrible. Nor do we need to claim that market education would work perfectly. Instead, our argument is that, as good as government education may be, market education would be much better yet.

Megan Day, an activist in a Colorado Springs political group who came to SepCon as an observer, brought up in casual discussion a point which would seem to counter Nash’s criticisms of government schools: probably the vast majority of the SepCon participants were educated in government schools. In other words, if libertarians are so smart, it would seem we got that way because of our government education.

This is on the surface a troublesome catch-22. If I, having gone through government schools, say that government schools are bad, then I am also saying I am intelligent enough to understand that government schools are bad, which seems to imply that the government schools did a rather good job with me. The inescapable conclusion: government schools are good. (Day herself did not draw out this argument; I built it from one of her casual remarks.)

However, this argument is easily refuted by the reality of education. Before the mid-1800’s, most people were educated in market schools. Many – perhaps most – of the most successful people in history had little or no formal education whatsoever.

Many of today’s libertarians also prove the argument wrong. I, for instance, gained practically all of my education outside the government schools I attended. Primarily, I educated myself as a child by spending thousands of hours reading hundreds of books of my own choice, entirely outside the confines of school. Through my extensive reading, mostly of sci-fi and adventure stories, I developed my vocabulary, I implicitly learned the rules of grammar, and I spent days on end contemplating new and strange ideas. Before that, I remember learning how to read – on my mother’s lap.

I did learn something in the government schools I attended, to be sure. I learned a bit about the branches of the US government and a smidgen of world history and geography. In high school, one of my teachers – Carolyn Martinez – made an extraordinary impact on my life by giving me a “C” on a book report, thereby encouraging me to actually exert some effort writing my subsequent papers. Virginia Settle taught me a bit about the formal structure of grammar, and more importantly she took me and a few other students on an international adventure (outside the structure of the government system). My journalism teacher was excellent – the majority of my teachers were at least competent. On the other hand, a great deal of my “seat time” was a waste.

When I think of how my physics teacher, an affable man and an effective teacher, was pressured out of my high school because of disagreements with the administration, I wonder when our teachers will come to demand the freedoms, and the added responsibilities, of a market system of education.

At any rate, I can accurately say that I am primarily self-educated. I am certainly not alone. John Geltemeyer (a Libertarian Party activist from the Springs) noted, “I was self-taught. I didn’t learn in [government] schools; I slept through school. Then I read the encyclopedia at home.”

Day raised other, more formal points against separating schools from the State. Day noted that, without tax funding, people would be denied the choice of pursuing an education through the government. This is on one level an obvious point, but it also raises a more subtle difficulty, which is how the poorer members of society would fare in the market system. Unfortunately, this issue was addressed barely if at all during the conference, though it is pivotal in the cultural move to market education.

Libertarians argue, I believe correctly, that scaled tuition and private charity will, in a market system of education, afford everyone a better education than they now receive. This is an empirical point, however, which requires extensive research into the history of charity generally and the history of education charity in particular, as well as into present economic conditions. Yet, as I commented to Day, the mere fact that she and so many other people are so concerned about the poor getting a good education is a fairly good indication that “we” will provide for the poor in a market system.

One continuing concern I have is with the term “public education,” which Day and practically everyone else used throughout the conference. There is nothing particularly “public” about government education; indeed, the government schools remain largely isolated from the public’s input and the public’s interests. Market schools are much more responsive to the needs of the “public,” just as market grocery stores are much more responsive to the needs of America’s public than were State-grocery stores to the needs of the (formerly) Soviet public.

Though the habit of thinking of “public education” is deeply ingrained, intellectual clarity is imperative, so one must draw a consistent distinction between “government education” and “market education.” (I have also used “private education,” but the term “market” is more accurate.)

Day was very receptive to some of the libertarian arguments. She was “very surprised,” for instance, to hear theists like R.C. Sproul, Jr. condemn the enforcement of prayer in government schools. Sproul, along common libertarian lines, argued that religions should not be able to forcibly collect tax dollars to subsidize religious practices. Of course, the parallel argument which would tend to counter Day’s support of government schools is that such schools today force religious people to subsidize anti-religious practices and beliefs.

The final critic of Separation at SepCon ’98 was Bill Spady, father of “Outcome Based Education.” The main reason Spady gave against separating schools from the state is that “we have too much separation now;” we should be trying to bring people together in our culture. This is a confusion of categories, however; libertarians want to get the government out of education, partly in order to create more social harmony and peaceful interaction.

Spady’s more substantive comments dealt with issues of pedagogy, which in turn have political implications. Spady begins with a profound and, to my mind, obviously true proposition: “There is more to learning than knowledge.” In fact, gaining knowledge might be considered only a tiny part of learning. We aren’t merely storage bins for facts; rather, we are emotive, relational, purposeful beings. An intelligent person who can’t control his or her emotions may be dangerous. A person unable to develop healthy interpersonal relationships is not a complete person. A person unable to set and pursue goals leads an empty life.

Spady’s next turn, however, proves highly troublesome. Because we are emotive, relational, and purposeful beings, as well as intellectual beings, reasons Spady, we should therefore create a system of formal education which requires the exhibition of general “competencies” which extend far beyond intellectual skills into the realm of political attitudes and social behaviors.

Spady’s system, then, is mis-named. All types and styles of education are aimed toward “outcomes,” so “Outcome Based Education” fails to distinguish Spady’s system from any other. A better name for Spady’s ideas might be, “whole-person education.”

While I agree with Spady that a rich education develops the whole of a human being, I disagree with Spady that the education system should be concerned with formallypromoting and evaluating “competencies” in the arenas of emotion, relationships, and purposes.

The central argument against Spady’s education system is that it places an instructor in the position of mandating certain behaviors for students. The mandated behaviors are not only those necessary to maintain peace and good order in the classroom; Spady would have schools “teach” students how to build relationships, how to be a good citizen, and so forth. Even the most righteous teacher would be likely to use such a system for questionable purposes, and less scrupulous instructors could easily pervert the system. (To name an extreme example, German leaders of the 1930s were fairly good at inducing particular behavioral “outcomes” among “their” youth.)

My home-town school district came very close to adopting Spady’s plan several years ago. The “outcomes” specified included particular political beliefs and particular cultural attitudes. It was quite frightening. I asked Spady, “How much do you feel OBE was taken away from you?” He replied, “Tons.” In his view, his ideas were being perverted by those who didn’t properly understand them. “It was out of control,” lamented Spady. However, in my view the perversion of the system is inevitable. Once we give any group the authority to instill particular behaviors, behaviors required for “graduation” from school, the group in charge will mandate the behaviors they happen to prefer. Domination of the spirit is the necessary “outcome.”

How, then, should formal education should relate to the “whole person?” First, educators must recognize that each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own personal development. Obviously, parents have certain rights and obligations to keep their children from acting in harmful ways and sometimes to get them to act in helpful ways. Adults have the right and responsibility to protect individual rights. However, it is never appropriate to compel others to adopt particular political, social, or emotive attitudes or behaviors. How, then, do we influence others’ behavior? Via the tradition of rational persuasion.

Even though the person is more than the intellect, the individual can use the intellect to develop other aspects of the self. For example, I can study psychology to better understand and guide my feelings. I can study history and political economy to build reasonable political beliefs and practices. The appropriate way to influence the behavior of others is by persuading them, rationally, to develop certain aspects of themselves.

This issue is central to the entire libertarian project. Proponents of the State view human beings as fundamentally flawed, as incapable of raising themselves to enlightenment and goodness. People won’t give charity of their own accord; they must be forced to do it. People won’t provide a good education for their children on their own; they must be forced to do it. Children won’t learn how to develop civility, personal relationships, and emotional control through rational persuasion; they must be forced to do it.

Libertarians believe that each individual human being is capable of reaching goodness. People can be left free to grow, but they can be forced only to obey—and wither.

(Trivia Answer: Adolph Hitler, Bückeburg, October 7, 1933.)

Vouchers, Tax-Credits, and Separation

Milton Friedman is primarily responsible for the contemporary movement vying for school vouchers, an idea Friedman discusses in Free to Choose. The basic idea has been around much longer, of course: Thomas Paine discussed subsidizing poorer students’ education with tax money. Education tax credits are the recent variation of the voucher proposal.

Colorado voters recently struck down by a wide margin an education tax credit ballot initiative, just as they denied a voucher proposal years ago. Marshall Fritz, founder of the Separation of School and State Alliance, would breathe a sigh of relief at the rejection of such measures. Fritz strongly opposes vouchers and tax credits because they make schools more heavily dependent on the government, thereby increasing government control of schools. On this issue, I agree with Fritz completely.

Of course, the November vote doesn’t stop the state legislature from considering different ways of funneling tax dollars to otherwise private schools. In the 1998 session, state legislators, led by a broad coalition that includes Representative Penn Pfiffner, considered allowing people to funnel their tax dollars to K-12 scholarships for use by practically any school in Colorado. This proposal is the brain-child of Martin Angell, founder of the Every Church a School Foundation, who debated his idea with Fritz at SepCon ’98.

The so-called “school choice” ideas are revised with each new legislative proposal and can vary extensively in their details. However, the proposals can be separated into three broad classes: vouchers, tax credits for families, and tax credits for scholarship donors. Vouchers and family credits compete for attention, but either of these could be implemented along with donor credits, though I have not yet heard of any efforts to combine any two of these proposals. We will here examine each of the three variants.

With vouchers, long supported by newly elected US Congressman Tom Tancredo, the government subsidizes students’ education directly by issuing a “voucher” to each family with students. The voucher represents a certain number of tax dollars and can be redeemed only by the school that receives the voucher from the family. In the typical voucher proposal, every K-12 student receives a voucher of equivalent value. Usually, the value of the voucher is set significantly below the current per-student costs of government education (often at around half of that value). Conceivably, though, vouchers could be issued only to students of families below a certain income level. Families may supplement the voucher with personal funds for more expensive schools.

The problems with vouchers are two-fold. First, they make even more people dependent on the government for education. Currently, around 10% to 15% of the US population does not rely on government at all for K-12 education. Vouchers would tend to make practically everyone dependent on the government for education. Dependency in turn creates two problems: it reduces a person’s level of responsibility, and it creates more and larger special-interest groups to vie for control of government resources.

The second main problem with vouchers is that they invite more government regulations of education. True, proponents of vouchers rail against government intrusion, and they typically even write explicit language into the legislation to prevent increased government controls. However, government regulations always follow government dollars, and no amount of semantic cunning will prevent it. (He who pays the piper calls the tune.) As Charles MacKenzie noted in one of his SepCon sessions, the US Congress once promised, in law, that they would not become involved with regulating education. Why the supporters of vouchers trust politicians to make good on any of their promises is beyond me, given politicians’ history of upholding, say, the Constitution.

Vouchers have come under increasing criticism from a wide range of libertarians. Jacob “Bumper” Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation, Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Douglas Dewey of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, and others have joined in the libertarian critique of the voucher proposals.

Largely in response to the libertarian criticism, the voucher advocates modified their proposals into “tax credit” initiatives. Under these new proposals, tax credits would be issued to families with children in private schools or homeschools. Family tax credits are more versatile in that they can easily be offered to select students — for instance, the Colorado initiative would have given tax credits first to students from the worst government schools. Because tax credits are given retroactively and selectively, they are also more flexible for the government’s budget.

Some proponents of family tax credits claim the credits do not create more dependency on government, but only reduce a family’s tax burden. Steve Schuck, President of Coloradans for School Choice and the major backer of the 1998 tax credit initiative, suffers no such illusions. As literature from Schuck’s organization states, “If eligible taxpayers owe less in Colorado taxes than the amount of the credit, they receive a check from the state to cover the balance of the tax refund.” Of course, on the flip side of the coin, families who pay higher taxes will not be fully reimbursed, and the broader population without school-age children must of course continue to pay the full burden.

Schuck, however, erroneously imagines that family tax credits can subsidize private schools without increasing the level of state regulation. The thinking is, because the tax subsidies would go indirectly to the schools through the families, the legislature wouldn’t directly regulate the schools. This is wishful thinking. Everyone will realize that the schools are indeed receiving a tax subsidy.

But the text of the proposed tax credit law even states, “[N]either the state nor any subdivision thereof shall use this section to increase its regulatory role over the education of children in non-public schools beyond that exercised on January 1, 1998.” Of course, this text would not prevent the legislature from increasing regulatory burdens because of the tax subsidies, without technically using this section of the law for the purpose. In other words, the text of the proposal is a dream come true for lawyers and politicians.

Family tax credits, then, do not solve the problems of government dependency and government regulation. What about donor tax credits, which offer tax credits only to those who contribute to scholarship foundations? Angell’s proposal is, I must admit, the most clever and least objectionable of the education tax subsidy proposals. Significantly, Angell’s plan does not permit a credit greater than an individual’s tax burden. It also limits the amount of the tax credit. In the Colorado version the credit cannot exceed $500 of one’s state income tax.

Fritz offered some devastating arguments against the donor tax credit in his debate with Angell. As Fritz showed, the donor tax credit still perpetuates both dependency on government and the danger of more regulations.

Angell does not believe that donor tax credits will create more dependency. Angell calls his proposal a system of “private, voluntary funding.” However, this characterization is deceptive, as Fritz pointed out. The plan still relies on government to redistribute income by force. Fritz drew the analogy of a mugger who gave his loot to a good cause: would the mugging thereby be justified? This is the situation the Angell plan would create. The state would in effect be demanding: “Give me your money, or give it to the scholarship fund.” There is nothing “voluntary” about it. And, of course, the plan makes the recipients of the money dependent upon government force.

Angell is also overlooking the obvious danger that the government will simply raise taxes to compensate for the revenue lost to the scholarship funds. Colorado has some restraints on increasing taxes, but these restraints can be over-ridden fairly easily, and other states have much weaker restraints.

Angell fired back at Fritz that Fritz’s organization benefits from “tax-exempt status” as a non-profit. However, as Fritz noted, donations to a non-profit are not credited by the government; they are merely counted as write-offs which reduce an individual’s tax burden by only a small fraction of the donation to the non-profit. Non-profits, while not necessarily a good idea, do not for the most part depend on the forcible redistribution of wealth.

Fritz presented a clear, simple analogy relevant to the entire libertarian critique of the state. Sex, noted Fritz, is inherently a beautiful thing (he referred to it as the “marriage act” so as not to offend the more sensitive ears). However, forced sex, though it might look the same and have the same physical results, is obviously not the same act as voluntary sex. “Rape,” forced sex, is a perversion of sex and an atrocity, and it is anything but a “blessing” to either party, as Fritz put it, simply because it is forced. Similarly, charity is inherently a beautiful act. Forced charity is something altogether different.

All the advocates of education tax subsidies at SepCon exhorted “us” to “do something” about the deteriorated condition of American education. Fritz’s plan, to draw people into market education one family at a time, is seen as too distant, too difficult. If only we could hurry up the process by political means! Unfortunately, the attitude that we can fix everything with government is what got us into our present messes. As Fritz pointed out, if our goal is a market system of education in which no family is dependent on the government, making more people dependent on government via education tax subsidies is hardly a step in the right direction.

Mass-Producing Children

A Review of John Gatto’s Presentation

John Gatto would be an impressive speaker even for someone who doesn’t understand the language, I suspect. His large, commanding form and his somber yet urgent yet also compassionate voice nearly mesmerizes. Gatto’s insights into the history of our culture, however, are what prove riveting.

Gatto’s theme for his closing talk was simple: government schools exist to create mindless consumers.

Government schools create mindless consumerism in three broad ways. First, they perpetuate unecessary industries which feeds on the government system. The drug industry puts out ritalin to tranquilize behavioral problems. School psychologists, the schools which train the psychologists and the teachers, the local politicians, and the bureaucrats all profit from the system.

More importantly from the perspective of the students, schools train children for “whimsical purchasing” of useless and even harmful material products. Schools contract with cola companies to sell and advertise pop in the schools. Businesses provide propaganda materials to students as if it were “course work.” One example given by Gatto was a coloring and language book put out by a butter company and used in government school. The book asks the child to color two pictures of an adult man, representative of the child’s father. One father “got his butter,” the other did not. The book asks the child to color the buttered father with healthy skin tones and eye colors, while it asks the child to color the father who hadn’t eaten butter in grotesque colors, with green hair, black teeth, and so forth.

The deeper criticism, though, is that children are trained in government schools (and the private schools which emulate them) to mindlessly perform meaningless tasks in order to hold a steady job and buy useless products.

The historical background Gatto provides is powerful enough to make even the severe skeptics pause. According to the history cited by Gatto, government schools were quite purposefully directed toward the end of “dumbing us down” (which is the title of Gatto’s book) and creating a compliant, robotic work force.

In the late 1800s, reported Gatto, the young US Department of Education said that the “general ability to read” was creating problems for maintaining a “controllable work force.” In 1888, the US Senate wrote, “We believe that education is the principal source of discontent” among the work force.

According to Gatto, such US business leaders as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan saw education as the enemy of the “Empire of Management.” Smitten with the ideas of social-Darwinism, which held that some “strains” of people are inherently superior to others, these leaders promoted a government school system which would keep the “genetic dead-ends” in their place and in which children would be, in the words of a commentator of the time, “manufactured like nails.”

In Fritz’s March 1997 Education Liberator, Edwood Cubberly said, “Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials, children, are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” Edward Ross wrote about earlier government schools, “The role of the schoolmaster is to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading board according to the specifications laid down.”

Gatto’s presentation suggests that the unnaturally compartmentalized subjects of government schools, the well-regulated bell ringing, the anti-conceptual “learning” techniques like “look-say” reading and “new math,” the teacher-controlled classrooms, the compelled and continual submissiveness of the students, the constant tone of commands – all these are a part of a system aimed to create a compliant, rather than an educated, populace.

I found Gatto’s presentation compelling. Notably, for much of Gatto’s lecture, I felt like I could just as well have been sitting in at a socialist conference rather than a libertarian one. Socialists, too, decry the corruptive influence of “big business” and the infatuation with useless material goods. How do Gatto’s remarks mesh with libertarian theory?

Libertarians must admit to themselves that freedom, though a necessary condition for a healthy culture, is certainly not a sufficient one. Libertarians cannot simply argue that the State is the cause of everything wrong with culture, because this omits consideration of what caused and perpetuates the State, which is the same culture.

In terms of education, even a market system is susceptible to corruption. However, the market cannot entrench corruption the way a government system can (and has). Once the government system had created a bureaucracy and a host of other special interest groups dependent on the forced transfer of tax dollars, the structure became very rigid and difficult to change. Also, with the top-down, centrally controlled government, the system is monolithic and unresponsive to grass roots needs.

Government education did not begin in the early 1850s on the models of scientific management and social-Darwinism. Back then, the goals were the less lofty ones of suppressing religious minorities. However, with the structure in place, the social engineers had little trouble seizing control of the levers of power later in the century. The general observation that power tends to corrupt is an important part of the libertarian critique of the State.

On the other hand, it’s not as if the entire education establishment moved with one will. Most of the teachers, though affected by political pull, didn’t alter their teaching styles or methods of interacting with the students, just because a few important men wanted them to train up a generation of obedient worker-soldiers. Similarly, many teachers in today’s government schools continue to do an excellent job, despite the political nonsense going on around them

Today, just about everyone has given up the utopian vision of creating a malleable labor force through social engineering. The information age has smashed all conception of a bee-hive society. People—all people—need to think for themselves again, and this fact is abundantly evident. The rulers of the government schools are no longer driven by a desire to re-shape society according to their plans. Now, they would be very happy to get the public to stop complaining, to raise their students’ SAT scores, and to get subversives like me to shut up about it already. The current problems with the government system arise from the legions of paper pushing bureaucrats and the continual fads that sweep through the schools every other year or so, tearing away at what little remains of a sound pedagogy with every cycle. There is no coherent evil plan; there is no coherent plan for anything. There are just plans—plans and tons of plans that no one even cares about anymore.

Gatto, then, describes only one part of the education elephant. Today’s children are not purposely trained to be “mindless consumers,” though they may learn the attitude from the mindless school systems of which they are a part. If some students learn to go through life just accepting, just “getting along,” just following through with meaningless activities, perhaps they are learning this behavior from the adults around them. But not all young people follow this course: my younger brother nearly flunked out of high school, and in a quite conscientious manner. I used to get on him for his low grades, but now I respect him for keeping his soul intact. He is now quite happy, financially responsible, and a complete success by his own standards. I earned high grades in high school, but I made my own paths doing so.

If Gatto captured only part of the story of education, he also touched on only one aspect of “consumerism.” I wish that Gatto would draw a clearer distinction between “mindless consumerism” and “mindful consumerism.” My Randian sentiments lead me to romanticize productive work a bit, and rightly so, I believe. Just like education, production and consumption can be either authentic or heartless. Endless products make a real, positive difference in the quality and length of human life. Wealth enables us to pursue art, literature, and intellectual discussion more fully. (The computer on which I am presently typing comes immediately to mind.) While too many people of all ages lose their minds in front of the television, others use technology as a tool, as part of a full, thoughtful life.

Despite the limitations of his talk, Gatto perhaps as much as any other person has caused people to think about fundamental issues in education and about the very idea of “school.” If a revolution in education succeeds, it will do so largely because of Gatto’s work.