Federal Voucher Advocates Ignore the Risks

Conservative school choice advocates seem almost unanimous in their desire for federal vouchers. Writing in National Review Online, the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli supports such a program on the grounds that it would save urban Catholic schools from insolvency. I couldn’t agree more that Catholic schools have been an invaluable educational lifeline for many families, and are eminently worth saving. But I am mystified by the right’s apparent lack of concern about the risks of federal school choice programs.

And I’m not just talking about the 10th Amendment’s proscription against federal education policymaking, which Bill Bennett and Rod Paige dismissed last week as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” I’m talking primarily about the sobering examples of national voucher programs in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden.

While these programs are superior, in many respects, to education monopolies such as our own, they suggest that federal voucher programs bring with them stifling federal regulation. In Sweden, the regulation was there from the start, while in the Netherlands it built up inexorably over time. There are no examples anywhere in the world of federal governments extending funding to private schools without also extending federal control – whether immediately or gradually. The end result is that independent schools lose their independence, and any hope for the rise of a truly competitive education industry is lost.

Why are conservatives ignoring this risk? Perhaps they no longer see federal regulatory encroachment as a risk at all. Many have specifically advocated increased federal intervention in the content of instruction (see this debate on federal standards between Michael Petrilli and Cato’s own Neal McCluskey, or Neal’s current piece in NRO).

There are alternatives. State level school choice policies are preferable to federal ones, and funding universal school choice with private dollars (through non-refundable tax credits) is preferable to doing it with government dollars. Short version of this argument here. Long version here.