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Vouchers: Another Income Redistribution Scheme

Mises Daily: Thursday, February 03, 2005 by

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A version of this review of Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle over School Choice by Clint Bolick (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2003) appeared in the Journal of Libertarian Studies 18.2 (subscribe)

Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle over School Choice is the story of the twelve-year legal battle for school choice that culminated in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-HarrisSupreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland school choice program (educational vouchers).

But because the book is also the author's firsthand account of his litigation experiences on behalf of school choice programs, it is also the story of a libertarian's twelve-year crusade on behalf of a government program.

Bolick is the author of several previous books on civil rights, and is the vice president and national director of state chapters at the Institute for Justice. He also has the dubious distinction of having worked for the government at the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

Although the book was not written in defense of vouchers per se, it has that effect because the author writes from the perspective that vouchers are a good thing that all libertarians should support. Bolick is clearly a pragmatic libertarian who envisions vouchers as both improving public schools by holding them more accountable and helping private schools without bringing increased government regulations. And although he does acknowledge that libertarians are divided on the issue, Bolick gives short shrift to the concerns of libertarian critics of vouchers.

Bolick correctly describes the dismal condition of the public school system, but fails to offer the correct solution: the complete separation of school from state. The Gordian Knot stays uncut. He insists that "it is nothing less than criminal to fail to consider private options in a rescue mission" for children in failing public schools. But is it any less criminal to compel a citizen to pay for the education of someone else's children?

Bolick should have read Ludwig von Mises: "There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private association and institutions."

Besides this crucial point, there are also a number of other fallacies that underlie Bolick's support of vouchers.

The bad guys in the fight against vouchers are always the teachers' unions, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the NAACP, People for the American Way, the ACLU, and "special interest groups." To be opposed to vouchers is to be identified with these groups. Both "absolutist" libertarians and teachers' unions are accused of being responsible for keeping children in government schools. At one point Bolick even implied that God would be on the side of the voucher supporters if the weather were good for a pro-voucher rally.

Bolick holds up the Milwaukee voucher program as "a model for the nation." But this program has been severely criticized by even voucher supporters such as John Merrifield, in his book School Choices.

As a lawyer, Bolick can be forgiven for his claim that "litigation could in fact change the world," but as a libertarian he should know better.

Bolick "idolizes" Milton Friedman, and considers Friedman and his wife "the godparents" of the school choice movement. Friedman or his educational foundation is mentioned about twenty-five times in the book. The longest blurb on the back cover is written by Friedman. But as Murray Rothbard showed: "In many ways, we have Milton Friedman to thank for the present monster Leviathan State in America."

Bolick attaches too much importance to court decisions in favor of vouchers. He equates favorable rulings with the Berlin Wall coming down and "a new era of freedom in our nation's educational system." Not only does Bolick claim that the Zelman case "is the most important education case since Brown v. Board of Education," he frequently invokes the 1954 Brown case as a parallel to the fight for vouchers. Naturally, the NAACP disagrees, denouncing the analogy as "insulting to the thousands of courageous African-American parents and students."

To those parents who would use vouchers to send their children to a private school, vouchers do seem like they empower parents and provide educational freedom. But vouchers are not about educational freedom, they are an income transfer program from the "rich" to the poor. Bolick even admits that vouchers are "a form of income redistribution."

But considering the state of public education in America, aren't vouchers a step in the right direction? Aren't they better than doing nothing? To the contrary—vouchers will make the present system worse. Rather than increasing educational opportunity, vouchers will increase the government's grip on education, increase the costs of education, increase people's dependency on the state, and increase the overall power of the state.

Since the state always controls what it subsidizes, private schools that accept voucher payments will be subject to increased regulation. Given the state's track record, it is inconceivable that it could be otherwise. Private schools will be responsible to the state instead of to parents.

Vouchers are an income transfer program in two respects. Not only will people be forced to pay for the education of other people's children, voucher dollars will be an additional tax burden. Voucher proposals never advocate any reduction in funding for public schools to pay for them.

The state may eventually embrace vouchers if it can use them to its own advantage to foster increased dependency on the state. With a voucher system, both parents and children will look to the state for educational services more so than they do now.

Although Bolick uses the language of the free market and argues that "for those of us who consider ourselves libertarians, the school choice movement is a textbook example of effectively reducing the scope and power of government," many libertarians disagree. Hans Sennholz , the former president of the Foundation for Economic Education, argues that "the very premise of the voucher system is identical to that of the present system of state education. It builds on the coercive powers of the state that raise and dispense the funds according to certain qualifications and conditions. It is neither a stepping stone to educational freedom nor offers a viable alternative."

He is one of many who take this view. If you are looking for a comprehensive legal history of the school voucher movement, then by all means this is your book. However, if you are looking for a philosophical defense of school vouchers or interaction with conservative and libertarian opponents of vouchers then this book will leave you sorely disappointed.

Vouchers, like Social Security privatization and the Iraq war, amount to another attempt to impose market ends by socialist means--a reversal of the social democratic habit of old in which socialism was attempted through market means. But like any mixed economy scheme, whether the statism applies to the means or the ends, the result is bad for public finance, bad for economic productivity, and bad for the practice of liberty.

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Laurence M. Vance is a freelance writer and an adjunct instructor in accounting and economics at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, FL. Vancepub@juno.com. See his archive. See also other Mises.org articles on school vouchers . Comment on the Blog.