Megan McArdle

Don’t Blame Us Libertarians for School Choice Disappointment

The headline of Megan McArdle’s latest Bloomberg View piece stings, at least for a libertarian whose job is to advance educational freedom: “We Libertarians Were Really Wrong About School Vouchers.”

Ouch! But to this I say: Speak for yourself!

To be fair, I don’t know how things work for big-time columnists, but there’s a good chance McArdle didn’t pen her own headline. Pubs need clicks, and the shrewd marketeers at Bloomberg were no doubt well aware that such an inflammatory header would draw in all roughly ten professional libertarian school choicers, boosting readership by huge hundredths of a percent. And it is worth saying: While I’m not sure you would call them libertarians, John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools was seminal in launching the modern choice movement, and they did assert that choice would be a “panacea.” If that is what libertarians expected from the tiny choice programs we’ve gotten so far, yes, we were wrong. But that is not what libertarians should have expected.

The fact is we have not even come close to getting what we need—real, broad freedom, which McArdle and lots of libertarians call “the market.” (I’ve decided, by the way, that a “market” is a horrible way to conceptualize what libertarians want, because it implies education is all about efficient financial transactions. What we want is full-on human freedom.) None of the voucher, charter, scholarship tax credit, or education savings account programs we have gotten have even come close to a free market, as many libertarians have been decrying for decades.

How far are we? Thankfully, you don’t have to dig into old books to find out—we give you the lowdown in Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas (available in free PDF version or wherever fine books are sold)! Andrew was a leading critic of the kinds of hamstrung programs many choice supporters lauded for years—a few thousand kids with small vouchers here, public charter schools there—and the book contains multiple chapters examining what is needed for a true free market. As the Heartland Institute’s George Clowes lays out:

  • Parental choice of school
  • Direct parental financial responsibility
  • Freedom for educators to establish different types of schools
  • Explicit competition among educators
  • The profit motive for educators (and the need for a reliable revenue stream)
  • Universal access (including low- and high-income families)
  • Per-pupil funding comparable to the public schools, with the funding following the child
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