Are Federal School Vouchers a Good Idea?

Today, Senators Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott have proposed taking federal education funding and voucherizing it, allowing it to follow students to the schools of their choice, public or private. The goal of these plans is to expand families’ educational options and raise quality through competition and choice. Surely a worthy goal. But equally surely, federal education programs generally fail to achieve their goals. So it is essential to evaluate every proposal on its merits, using the best evidence available.

Senator Alexander’s plan is by far the larger of the two federal voucher proposals. It would serve up to 11 million low-income students—one out of every 5 public school students in the country. Do we have any examples of what happens when national governments start paying for private schooling? Indeed we do. There are numerous such cases in the 2,500 year history of formal schooling, and there are several programs around the world currently operating in this way. The lesson of those programs is very clear: government funding brings government control and cartellization, undermining the very independence and competition that gives private sector education its advantage.

What is especially pernicious about this effect at the national level is that every regulation affects every school in the country—there is nowhere for families to turn to escape an encroaching regulatory tide.

I wrote about the Dutch experience eight years ago, when then-President G.W. Bush proposed a similar voucherization of federal education spending. Nothing much has changed since. No experienced federal politician or observer of federal politics can doubt that, in the U.S. as in the Netherlands and elsewhere, federal funding would ultimately bring with it stifling regulation of private education.

Perhaps if there were no viable alternative policy, some would consider that an acceptable degree of collateral damage. But there are alternatives. Already, eleven states have education tax credit programs that improve achievement for both private and public school students, lower the net tax burden, avoid excessive regulation, and compel no one to support types of education they find objectionable.

Not only is this alternative policy superior on the merits, it also has the pleasant, if not entirely fashionable, advantage of comporting with the U.S. Constitution, which delegates to Congress no national powers in the area of education.

That is not to say that there is nothing federal lawmakers can do to improve education. The Constitution carves out certain special cases (e.g., the District of Columbia, the military) over which Congress can arguably make law relating to education. And by virtue of their limited scope, any regulations attached to such federal programs cannot suffocate the freedom of the entire education sector. Sen. Scott’s proposal does in fact single out military families, and to that extent is worthy of serious consideration.

Another federal initiative that deserves serious consideration is the LEARN act proposed by Rep. Garrett (NJ). This bill would simply cut taxes on the citizens of any state that decides to opt-out of federal education programs. And since existing federal programs haven’t been achieving their goals, opting out of them seems a wise course of action.

So, yes, let’s all celebrate school choice this week and every other week. But let’s be very, very leery about getting behind measues with as dangerous a set of precedents as national school vouchers.