Commentary

Why Federal School Vouchers Are a Bad Idea

President Bush wants to help kids in failing public schools. That’s good. He wants to do it by giving them federal vouchers to attend private schools. That’s bad.

The president is right to favor parental choice and competition between schools. Educational freedom has a long and illustrious history reaching all the way back to ancient Athens – and the Athenians gave us democracy (albeit in a crude form) and most of Western culture.

That’s not too shabby when you consider that the legacy of ancient Sparta, pioneer of state-run schooling, is, uh… a name for high-school football teams.

But if you study the subsequent 25 centuries of education history, you are driven to an inescapable conclusion: government funding of private schools brings with it government control – and the higher the level of government involved, the more serious the problem.

The Netherlands is a case in point. Back in 1917, the Dutch were at each others’ political throats over the content of their government schools. Different religious and cultural factions couldn’t agree on the official curriculum (sound familiar?).

Rather than spilling blood, they came up with a kinder, gentler idea: they’d fund any sort of school for which there was a demonstrable public demand. Catholics could get Catholic schools, Calvinists, Calvinist schools, and so on. It worked like a charm. Far from Balkanizing the public, as modern school choice critics fear, educational freedom and diversity dissipated the conflict that government schooling had caused.

So far so good. But with government funding came government control. Today, the Dutch government defines teacher accreditation requirements, fixes salary scales, curtails the firing of teachers, sets the core curriculum, says how much will be spent, makes it illegal to charge tuition over the voucher amount, and prohibits profit-making in voucher schools. In other words, Dutch “independent” voucher schools have lost their independence.

Indeed, like Puritans fleeing England’s established Church, I know of several Dutch teachers who came to America to escape the suffocating pall of government intervention in their country’s voucher schools.

There are ways to mitigate this regulatory encroachment.

Acting at the state rather than the national level, for instance, can harness the “laboratory” of federalism. States that went too far in curtailing the autonomy of voucher schools would likely drive away parents and businesses, engendering an economic backlash that would discourage regulatory excesses. The lack of this mitigating factor at the national level is a key reason for opposing the president’s federal voucher proposal.

An even better solution to the regulatory problem is to avoid using government money entirely. There are two driving forces behind the public’s desire to regulate government-funded schools: opposition to paying for instruction that violates our convictions, and a desire for accountability. State education tax credits address both concerns more effectively than either vouchers or the existing government monopoly.

America is in a perpetual culture war over the public school curriculum. Think “intelligent design,” school prayer, sex education, textbook selection, etc. The Dutch voucher program eliminated much – but not all – of that conflict. At present, there is discomfort in some quarters of the generally liberal population over certain very conservative Islamic voucher schools – especially in the wake of the religiously-motivated murder of film director Theo van Gogh. But if access to Islamic voucher schools is curtailed, law-abiding Dutch Muslims will suffer. It’s a lose-lose situation that is inherent in the government funding of education.

Tax credits avoid this zero-sum game. A complete education tax credit program has two parts: a credit for parents to use against their own expenses, and a credit for individuals and businesses who donate to private Scholarship-Granting Organizations (SGOs). The first part helps middle-income families pay for their own children’s schooling, and the second part ensures that low-income families also have the resources they need to participate in the education marketplace.

Under this system, no one is compelled to fund anything to which they might object. The personal credits involve people spending their own money on themselves, and the donation credits allow taxpayers to choose the SGO that receives their donations. No government money is used.

Taxpayer accountability is also far greater under tax credits than either vouchers or government schooling. If you don’t like the way a particular SGO is allocating your money, you can redirect your donations elsewhere. Try doing that with your tax payments.

So while the president is right to favor greater choice for parents and greater autonomy for educators, there are better ways to achieve those goals than a dangerous expansion of federal intervention in our schools. Let’s leave educational authority to the states and the people – to whom the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment rightfully reserve it.

Andrew Coulson is Director of the Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.