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An Appointment with Vouchers

An Appointment with Vouchers

6 Mins
February 23, 2017

For partisans on both sides of the nomination (and hard-fought confirmation) of Betsy DeVos, 59, of Michigan, as secretary of education, I have glad tidings.

If you long for remission of America’s most invasive monopoly—tax-supported (“public”) education—Secretary DeVos is your advocate of public-school choice, charter schools, and, above all, vouchers for parents to spend at schools of their choosing. She has been called “a fierce proponent of vouchers” that enable students to attend private schools with public funding. Vouchers for private education would begin to rectify one of the single greatest injustices imposed on American families: paying all their working lives for “free” tax-supported education for other families and then paying all over again for education of their own children at a school of their choosing.

If you are alarmed by her confirmation, there is good news, too. Any significant change she brings to U.S. tax-supported education will come only through voluntary acceptance of her ideas on the local level—the pivotal level of control in American elementary and secondary education. The numbers tell the story. The Budget Office, U.S. Department of Education, reports that “the President's budget request for FY 2017 includes $69.4 billion in discretionary funding.” And that the Department’s “elementary and secondary programs annually serve nearly 16,900 school districts and approximately 50 million students attending more than 98,000 public schools and 28,000 private schools.”

The site of the National Center for Education Statistics reports that “Total expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in the United States amounted to $620 billion…”

These rudimentary statistics must be considered when assessing the promise or peril of Secretary DeVos. Expenditures for tax-supported elementary and secondary schools in the country are $620 billion a year; the Department of Education spends on all its various programs $69 billion a year.

Thus, the Department spends about one dollar out of eleven that support U.S. elementary and secondary education, both tax-supported and private (“independent” or church supported). But that exaggerates the Department’s influence because its budget is fractured into many programs and scattered among tax-supported schools and private schools—a vast and decentralized system.

Opposition to the nomination and confirmation of Secretary DeVos has been near historic. The Senate confirmation vote was 51 to 50, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie—the first time in history this has occurred. The reasons for that historic struggle, if fully explored, would tell the whole story of America’s most pervasive monopoly, of government by one-issue factions, and of the willingness of the Trump administration to butcher the holiest sacred cow to feed American children.

DeVos’s Resume in Alternatives to Tax-Supported Education

I was discussing the DeVos appointment with a close friend, a respected teacher and program director in New York City schools (tax-supported and independent) for her entire career. The DeVos nomination shocked and angered her. Betsy DeVos, she said, has no connection with public education. And that is the whole extent of the indictment of DeVos in the news media and the flood of letters and phone calls to Congress from the tax-supported education establishment. It kept Democratic senators up all night before the confirmation vote, speaking in the Senate although the outcome of the vote was a foregone conclusion.

That indictment of Secretary DeVos is also the “resume” that recommended her to the new Trump administration. Over the last two decades, she has been arguably the single most diversely experienced, consistent, and influential figure in the experiments in alternatives to tax-supported government education. Certainly, she has not shaded her estimate of the public, tax-supported education monopoly. The Washington Post (December 21, 2016) quotes her as saying that tax-supported public education is "a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It's a monopoly, a dead end."  

The legendary Afro-American commentator, Thomas Sowell, came out of retirement to write an impassioned column in support of DeVos:

“One of the biggest complaints about her is that, unlike Secretaries of Education before her, she does not come out of the government's education establishment. Considering what a miserable job that establishment has done, especially in inner-city schools, her independence is a plus.”

My friend argued that “all of this brand-new stuff,” such as charter schools, was still experimental and yielded mixed results [unlike the public schools?].  Here, I had to laugh. In the “Objectivist Newsletter,” in the late 1960’s, Ayn Rand called attention to a brilliant chapter in The God of the Machine, in which Isabel Paterson skewered the contradictions and moral dilemmas in tax-supported education that: forces parents 1) to pay for schools that teach ideas they may reject and 2) to send their children to those same schools unless they can afford, in addition to full school taxes, the cost of tuition at a private school.

At that time, any principled opposition to tax-supported education was heresy; it was, and is, the bedrock collectivist ideal. It embodies the collectivist concepts of “rights”—the “right to education”—egalitarianism—the “right” to an equal education—the responsibility of the state—“to educate all citizens”—and conformity to the collective ideal—education as the “seedbed of democracy.”

The altruist defense of tax-supported public education is not original: “So, it’s all right if children grow up totally illiterate?” is the equivalent of “So, it’s all right if people are dying in the streets?” Already, as that argument was mounted, states were creating vast systems of higher education subsidized by taxpayers and demanding the right of every American to tax-supported higher education. And so, the collectivists exposed the hypocrisy of their own “illiterate children” argument and revealed their goal. It is considered, today, passé to call that goal “socialized education,” just as it is viewed as “retro” to refer to “socialized medicine.”

Getting at the Issue: Force or Choice

But that is what it is. Ayn Rand pointed out that the totalitarian nature of government education in America was partially obscured by the continued existence of private schools supported by parents so committed to the best education for their children that they are willing to pay twice. If parents do not rebel at this, asking “If my children do not use the schools, and so occasion no expense, why am I paying full-fare in school taxes?” it is because of altruism. To protest at paying for the education of other children, even while paying for my own, is viewed as selfish. When Ayn Rand advocated, as an “emergency measure,” a response to the public-education vice, she named specifically tax-credits for education—a variant on vouchers.

Independent and parochial schools are a major sector of education through the high-school level. They have thrived for decades despite competition from “free schools.” It is preposterous to claim that there is no viable alternative to the tax-supported cartel. The alternative has exemplified robust competition and market appeal. (Indeed, an issue faced by all private schools is what percentage of their class to admit from abroad, where “full-pay” parents worldwide clamor to gain admission for their children.)

Today, with our massive tax-supported school system, a transition to private and independent schools will be required. Vouchers embody a commitment to guarantee universal elementary and secondary education, but take government out of the business of designing, running, and evaluating schools. It is a policy prescription that addresses both the moral issue (the injustice of paying twice) and the fatal weakness of any enterprise protected by law from competition. (The latter is the essential argument for school choice within the tax-supported system.)

Vouchers for education go back at least to 1869, in Vermont, where districts were too small to have high schools. In the 1960s, they were used in some southern states to enable parents to avoid forcibly integrated schools. I predict that if vouchers become a major controversy, you will be treated to documentaries revisiting that brief, unfortunate period. But the rising Nazi Party in Germany used documentaries to glorify the regime. So, let’s not have any more documentaries?

The political pressure for vouchers is less than you would expect. Local school districts across America propose an annual budget, subject to community vote. Districts tax families to pay, often very generously, for schools. Those families control the schools; and the level of public education is adequate to outstanding. These parents pay school taxes and their children attend the schools. In this way, a great many families avoid paying twice.

Where To Spend the Money

Famililies who need vouchers are those seeking better schools than their district offers and must face private school costs in addition to school taxes. And the desperate need for vouchers is by families in the many districts in the inner-city and some rural areas with failing schools. Too often, the schools fail because the neighborhoods do not work—because the culture does not work. The dysfunctional culture is a problem education can address; but education does not work in the dysfunctional culture. That is why, half-a-century and trillions of dollars after the launching of the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty” in 1968, we hear the same complaints about the same problems—only worse.  (See my article “Who Will Save Us from Black Lives Matter.”)

Where should Department of Education dollars be spent? Enlarging the voucher system, consistent with the new Secretary’s convictions, or divided among all schools?  This is where philosophy transitions into policy because philosophy can offer no principle for deciding. Private conscience is a right of private wealth; but it is mere bias, a threat to the “consensus,” when tax dollars are at stake.

We do know that compromise with this ethical dilemma has driven the creation of alternatives to the public-school monopoly: 1) schools-of-choice, which permit parents to apply to public schools outside their own district, including “magnet” schools, and 2) the “charter school” movement through which parents and teachers, and sometimes education entrepreneurs, can obtain tax support for new schools. DeVos in recent years has led both movements.

If she directs funds to paying for vouchers, she will relieve some parents of double payment and support private schools, but those parents will continue to pay taxes for public education, which will remain unchanged. If she directs funds to schools of choice and charter schools, she is investing, for the most part, in reforms within the tax-supported system.

We must wait to see what Secretary Devos will make of this opportunity. It is one that I had not even hoped might be offered to a secretary of education in my lifetime. As a kind of illustration of the policy choices available to DeVos, let me suggest only one way to react.

Mr. Trump made daring promises to residents of America’s impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. These families are enduring the disaster of tax-supported education because they desperately need a way out of schools tied to their neighborhood and culture.

DeVos could devote substantial funds to vouchers for these families. The children would attend private schools, including boarding schools. She should prevail upon boarding schools to provide board in exchange for full-tuition payments. Get the students out of their neighborhoods and into effective schools.

This is also a political strategy. Yes, federal education dollars would be going for vouchers, not to tax-supported schools. But vouchers would be going to the certified neediest students, mostly minority, and tax-supported public schools are relieved of the cost of educating those students, but with no loss of revenue. After four years, perhaps eight, tens of thousands of “inner-city” kids will have attended private schools and the evaluation will reveal that the experience was transformative. Some thousands of inner-city (mostly African-American) youths will be educated, articulate advocates of the private education system. This could go a long way toward undercutting the argument that any change in tax-supported education will hurt the most vulnerable students.

That is simply an illustration of the kinds of choices available to the new Secretary of Education.

Count on the ideological ferocity of public school bureaucracy in denying any accomplishment that casts doubt on their monopoly. For them, the only choice is socialism in education versus a kind of anarchy that they never define. The anarchy they mean is lack of any dominant, legally-enforced system operated by licensed government employees to dictate how and what Americans will learn.

For collectivists, that is “anarchy.” For Secretary DeVos, apparently, it is freedom.


Betsy DeVos’ Game-Changing Confirmation by Jennifer Grossman

Obama Offers More of the Same Failed Education Ideas by Edward Hudgins

Walter Donway, one of the first trustees of the Atlas Society, is a novelist, poet, and writer about contemporary issues from the perspective of Objectivism. His articles for TAS publications, his presentations at summer seminars, and his contributions to this site can be found in the archives. His most recent book, Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist, with a preface by David Kelley, is a comprehensive look at loss of economic freedom in America; it is available on Amazon.

Walter Donway
About the author:
Walter Donway

"Walter's latest book is How Philosophers Change Civilizations: The Age of Enlightenment."

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