Commentary

School Voucher Venture

This article appeared in the Washington Times on September 21, 2003.

Under a House-approved school-voucher plan for the District of Columbia, some 2 percent of D.C.’s captive students would be offered $7,500 (about 70 percent of the per-pupil cost in the D.C. public schools) toward the cost of a private school. Only parents with a low income would qualify, with priority given to students stuck in the 15 worst-performing schools.

Even this tightly rationed tidbit of choice and competition frightens those determined to force all low-income students into D.C.’s notoriously lousy public schools. The Washington Post’s columnist Marc Fisher managed to describe the bill’s stingy sampling of school choice as “hoodwinking.” He also claimed to find it “offensive” that some parents with vouchers might choose a Catholic school.

My Cato Institute colleagues David Salisbury and Casey Lartigue are amazed it has somehow become fashionably liberal to argue that women should be allowed to choose whether to have an abortion while simultaneously claiming mothers should have no choice at all about where to send their kids to school. This is indeed quite remarkable. All parents would be rightly outraged if bureaucrats alone could choose where their kids could attend college. Yet those who define “public” schooling as synonymous with zero choice claim parents have no right to be outraged when arrogant bureaucrats insist their children be assigned to K-12 schools like branded cattle.

How and where children are schooled should surely be one of the most important decisions parents make, at least as important as buying a house and car. Yet this is the only major purchase in which most parents have no choice at all. They have to either pay up for whatever government agents supply or else pack up and move to another school district.

In truth, we would never even consider buying anything of importance as carelessly as we buy education for our kids. Take food and clothing, for example. Suppose some politicians decided that because food and clothing are so important, they will henceforth be distributed in exactly the same way we supply public schooling — namely, through government-run public superstores. To prevent people from crowding the best of these public markets, consumers would be assigned to a particular local store, just as students are now assigned to a particular school. The store you would be permitted to use would depend entirely on where your home was located.

Administrators of each local store would decide which varieties of food and clothing would be offered for sale. Whatever they decided to provide would be financed through compulsory property, sales and income taxes. People who never had babies, for example, would be compelled to pay their “fair share” for baby food. Failure to pay for groceries you did not want or use would be a crime, subject to imprisonment.

The products and services in these government stores would be much better in the most expensive neighborhoods, of course, because taxes to fund these stores would be higher. People from less affluent communities would have to be banned from using the better public stores, just as they are now banned from using the better public schools. Those who live in New York City’s Harlem would be prohibited from shopping at the public markets in nearby Scarsdale, and those who live in Compton, Calif., would be prohibited from doing business with public shops in Beverly Hills. Inattentive, lazy and rude service would soon become the norm, of course, since the captive customers of public stores could not take their business elsewhere. There would be no store choice and therefore no competition. Compounding this problem, clerks in the public stores would get tenure after a few years, becoming virtually impossible to fire for incompetence.

Private stores would arise to accommodate those who became fed up with the tax-financed stores. But even if a consumer never set foot in the public store, he or she would nonetheless be required to pay taxes for products and services they did not receive. There would be no rebate or tax credit for unused good and services.

If this sounds like a ridiculous way to buy food and clothing, that is because it is. And if it sounds like a ridiculous way to buy schooling, it is that too. Schooling is far too valuable and important to be left to a rigid, heavy-handed bureaucratic system that assigns students to tax-financed schools on the basis of where they happen to live.

To widen the scope of human liberty, we must always strive to maximize choice and minimize coercion. This is particularly obvious and vital when it comes to dismantling the heavily protected government monopoly of so-called “public” schooling.

Alan Reynolds is a nationally syndicated columnist.