My recent posting criticizing federal school voucher programs has drawn a critique from Robert Teegarden of the Alliance for School Choice. Here is my response:
I appreciate Robert and the Alliance taking the time to respond to my position on vouchers, tax credits, and the federal government. I’ve long argued that the school choice movement needs the equivalent of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers to hash out the best policy solutions, and here we are hashing out the proper federal role in market education reform. Excellent.
The first thing I’d like to do is correct some misapprehensions about my views. I do not think, nor have I ever said, that “tax credits… never have any government regulation,” as Robert claimed. I have shown that current tax credit programs impose less regulation on private school instruction than do current voucher programs, and I have argued that tax credits reduce the incentive for regulatory encroachment over time (see the “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict” section of the linked page).
Also, I would like to be clear that my opposition to federal school choice programs is not limited to federal vouchers, but includes federal education tax credits as well. I see federal vouchers as a more serious danger than federal tax credits, but neither is advisable.
The arguments, in both cases, are the same: the risk of destroying the entire U.S. independent education sector due to federal regulatory encroachment is simply too great, and federal intervention violates the 10th Amendment because Congress is granted no powers over education under the Constitution.
Robert's contention that the 10th Amendment allows for federal vouchers -- because "the people" want vouchers and the Amendment reserves power to "the people" -- is not persuasive. The express purpose of the 10th Amendment is to forbid Congress from acting outside its constitutional purview, regardless of what voters may be clamoring for at any given time. If the people want to change the Constitution to allow federal vouchers, there is a provision for that in the amendment process. Unless and until the Constitution is amended, Congress is legally bound by it.
In making the regulatory argument, I referred to “the laboratory of federalism.” It’s not my phrase, though, and I shouldn’t have used it. A better way of expressing the issue is to think of the states as market actors competing for businesses and residents. Under the “marketplace of federalism,” families and businesses seeking high quality education can seek out educationally freer states and flee states that mess up their education systems by excessively regulating the private sector. The federal government, by contrast, is a monopolist. Any regulations imposed by it are imposed equally on all schools in every state.
There is no check or balance to mitigate this threat. Robert called me “prescient” for expressing this concern, but the converse is true: I can’t see the future, but my hindsight is 20-20. Having studied dozens of school systems from ancient times to the present, I have found no system of elementary and secondary education funded by the government that did not eventually fall under the government’s pervasive control. Not one.
Robert points to pre-school and higher-education programs that have escaped such suffocating regulation. These are not germane. Historically, government regulation of the content of schooling has been concentrated most severely on the elementary and secondary levels because this is the period during which minds can most easily be shaped. Too much younger and children cannot grasp intellectual and ideological concepts. Too much older and they begin to have minds of their own. The existence of government-funded college and pre-school programs that have escaped extensive regulation does not alter the fact that such minimally regulated programs have seldom existed and have never survived at the elementary and secondary levels.
Robert ends his commentary with the following hopeful statement: “Money going to students is different from money going for institutions…. And like the famed battles for Troy, the ‘curriculum culture wars’ in America will all but cease, for parents will then actually be able to choose a school consistent with their values.”
His hope is unjustified. As I pointed out in the article to which Robert was responding, the Dutch have had “money going to the student” since 1917. This has not eliminated their culture wars. Some liberal Dutch citizens are uncomfortable funding orthodox Islamic voucher schools, and have made efforts to regulate them out of existence. In the wake of the murder of Theo Van Gogh, several schools, Muslim and non-Muslim, were burned to the ground in eye-for-an-eye arsons. Though Muslim voucher schools still exist, they are being increasingly heavily regulated, whether or not they promulgate extremist or hateful views.
It isn’t hard to see similar fault lines in America. A conservative religious school in Florida (one not participating in any of that state’s voucher programs) expelled a student a year or two ago for learning while gay. The student wasn’t “out,” but a teacher got wind of his sexual orientation, asked him about it, and he was expelled when he answered truthfully.
Does anyone think this expulsion would long stand if the school were cashing government voucher checks? Inevitably, liberal-minded folk would campaign for a law forbidding discrimination on such grounds. And would religious conservatives morally opposed to homosexuality be happy about such a law, or happy to fund schools aimed specifically at gay students? Or would they try to pass their own regulations to entrench their own views?
What voucher advocates have yet to acknowledge is that compelling all taxpayers to support every kind of schooling (a government voucher program) is a recipe for the same set of social conflicts as compelling all taxpayers to support a single kind of schooling (the current monopoly system). The only alternatives that avoid this socially Balkanizing compulsion are complete separation of school and state, and non-refundable education tax credits.
As I explained in my piece on federal vouchers, personal use tax credits involve people spending their own money on themselves – no compulsion involved. And tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds allow the donor to chose the recipient organization, also avoiding compulsion.
Finally, tax credits are indeed viable. Robert claims that the donation tax credit funding stream would prove insufficient. Before the rapid spread of state schooling in the mid-1800s, elementary enrollment and literacy were nearly universal among the free population in both England and the United States. That was in large part due to mutual aid societies and philanthropies. It has, in other words, already been done – and done even without the help of a tax credit program. With a tax credit program that allows taxpayers to redirect their funds to scholarship programs at no cost to themselves, universal access to the education marketplace can be achieved far more easily than it was in the early republic.
Robert's comment that it is somehow unacceptable for low-income families to rely on the goodwill of others fails to recognize that this is exactly the system we have today. This is a democracy. If there were not overwhelming support for high levels of education spending in this country, we wouldn’t have increased inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending by a factor of 14 over the past eighty years. Americans’ commitment to universal education is undeniable, and does not rest on a gun being pointed at the public’s head.
For a further discussion of these points, please see my piece Forging Consensus, and thanks again for engaging in this important discussion.