For years, the Right has promoted educational vouchers as an
alternative to public schools. This has always been a delusion. The
schools that take vouchers become the province of government regulators,
while the money for the vouchers is taken out of the hide of taxpayers
already being looted for public schools. Vouchers increase, not reduce,
government involvement in education.
Take a gander at the recently implemented and much-heralded Florida
voucher program. Kids with good or even passable academic records are
not eligible. Only the worst students from the worst public schools are
allowed to use the voucher. Some voucher proponents hope to see this
program expanded to everyone, but that still would not address the real
Leave aside their discriminatory impact and cost, and consider only
their effect on schools themselves. At best, vouchers are an expensive
attempt to reinvent the public schools, a doomed effort. At worst they
are an attempt to force private schools to operate exactly like the
public schools. Considering all the red tape the private school subjects
itself to, they are a giant step in the wrong direction. (You can read
the 181-page Florida law here.)
After the government gets through with them, these private schools
might as well be public schools. They must:
- file huge and ongoing financial reports to the state (no internal
- submit to all federal anti-discrimination laws (no single sex or
- accept scholarship students “on an entirely random and
religious-neutral basis without regard to the student’s past academic
history” (dumb bunnies and Wiccans must be given the red carpet);
- only “employ or contract with teachers who hold a baccalaureate or
higher degree, or have at least 3 years of teaching experience in public
or private schools” (loving Moms need not apply);
- “accept as full tuition and fees the amount provided by the state for
each student” (read: price controls);
- “agree not to compel any student attending the private school on an
opportunity scholarship to profess a specific ideological belief, to
pray, or to worship” (read: no independent curriculum);
- grant the government veto power over disciplinary procedures, such
that no vouchered student can be kicked out.
We are talking about mountains of paperwork here, and a sacrifice of
all independence. It’s understandable that only a few private schools in
Florida have been willing to subject themselves to the regulators. Let’s
hope that those who refuse this control don’t face financial constraints
that will suck them into the voucher system.
The solution to this problem is not to repeal the regulations. So
long as public money is involved, the government will always run the
show — as artists have surely figured out by now. The public, in fact,
is right to expect some accountability in the way tax dollars are spent.
The solution is to draw a strict line of separation between school and
state by never permitting their finances to mix.
But don’t vouchers save money? Actually, the opposite is true. The
Florida voucher plan will increase spending over present levels by $1.2
billion. Moreover, any money that is saved on tuition is not returned to
the taxpayers but dumped back into the public school system. Making
matters worse, public schools declared bad enough to permit their
students to attend welfarized private schools get increased government
funding. All told, taxpayers are going to be pillaged.
No wonder the Left is increasingly interested in vouchers. It’s a
big-government program that increases, not reduces, the role of
government in education, and will turn any institution taking vouchers
into a carbon copy of state schools themselves. For example, the
notoriously liberal Urban League of Miami argues for the
constitutionality of vouchers, even though under federalism, their
constitutionality shouldn’t be in question (as versus their wisdom).
What the Urban League likes is the welfarist aspect of the program. It’s
food stamps for education.
Writing in the July 1999 Atlantic Monthly, liberal commentator
Matthew Miller chides the Left for not seeing the inherent advantages of
vouchers. They increase education spending, give preferences to the
poor, and subject private schools to public control. From the socialist
perspective, he asks, what’s the problem? Good question.
The real mystery is why conservatives, libertarians, or religious
activists would cheer the Florida or any other voucher plan. Perhaps
they have begun to believe their own neoconservative rhetoric about
educational inequality, the plight of the poor who can’t afford fancy
schools, and the unjust privileges given those who can afford good
schools. Notice how it is the schools, rather than the little darlings
in them, that are always at fault?
As a thought experiment, Miller proposes a new federal $8 billion
spending program, so bad students in six big cities can take their F’s
and sometimes criminal behavior to private school at our expense.
Incredibly, in interviews, Miller got Republican candidate-in-perpetuity
Lamar Alexander and libertarian lawyer Clint Bolick of DC’s Institute
for Justice to endorse the idea. Again, that’s a wholly new $8 billion
federal program, endorsed by a self-proclaimed conservative and
If American education is to have a future, it’s not through more
government spending, control, and centralization. It is through
increased local and private spending and control. The ideal is zero
government involvement. Why does any freedom lover have to be reminded