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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Making Economic Sense
by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)

Chapter 43
Vouchers: What Went Wrong

California's Prop. 174 was the most ambitious school voucher plan to date. It was carefully planned well in advance, led by a veteran campaign manager, boosted by a nationwide propaganda effort of conservatives and libertarians, and tried out in a state where it is widely recognized that the public school system has failed abysmally. And yet, on the November 2 ballot, Prop. 174 was clobbered by the voters, losing in every county, and going down to defeat by 70-30 percent. 

What went wrong? Proponents blame an overwhelming money advantage for the opposition, fueled by the teachers' unions. But public school teacher opposition was inevitable and discounted in advance. Besides, the property-tax-cutting Prop. 13 of 1978 in California was outspent by far more than the voucher scheme by the entire Establishment: big business as well as unions, and yet it swept the boards by more than 2-to-1. On the contrary, the lack of money in this case only reflected the lack of support at the polls.

The school voucher advocates, like the feminist forces who tried to push through the ERA, met their defeat with bluster, and vowed to keep trying forever. But the feminists, despite their protestations, dropped their proposal like a hot potato once they realized that it was a loser. Perhaps the school voucher forces will likewise face reality and rethink their entire plan--and one hopes they will not bypass the voters and try to impose their scheme through executive or judicial fiat. For the big problem was the voucher scheme itself.

The voucher forces began with the recognition that something was very wrong with the public school system. One problem with public schools inheres in every government operation: that being fueled by coercion rather than by the free market, the system will be grossly inefficient. But while inefficiency on a free market will fail the profit-and-loss test and force cutbacks, governmental inefficiency will only lead to accelerated waste. The tax system and lobbying by vested interests causes the system to grow like Topsy, or rather like a cancer on the civil society.

Another grave problem with public schools, in contrast to other government functions, such as water or transportation, is that schools perform the vital function of educating the young. Governmental schooling is bound to be biased in favor of statism and of inculcating obedience to the state apparatus and trendy political causes.

The conservatives and libertarians who conceived the voucher scheme began by noting these grave flaws of the public school system. But in their eagerness for a quick fix, they overlooked several equally important problems.

For there are two other deep flaws with the public school system: one, it constitutes a welfare scheme, by which taxpayers are forced to subsidize and educate other people's children, particularly the children of the poor. Second, an inherent ideal of the system is coercive egalitarian "democracy," whereby middle-class kids are forced to rub shoulders with children of the poor, many of whom are ineducable and some even criminal.

Third, as a corollary, while all public schools are unneccessary and replaceable, some are in significantly worse shape than others. In particular, many public schools in the suburbs are homogeneous enough and able enough in their student body, and sufficiently under local parental control, to function well enough to satisfy parents in the district.

As John J. Miller, a voucher advocate, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Most suburbanites--the folks who make up the GOP's rank-and-file--are happy with their kids' schools systems. Their children already earn good grades, . . . and gain admission into reputable colleges and universities. Moreover, suburban affluence grants a measure of freedom in choosing where to live and thus provides at least some control over school selection . . . . The last thing these satisfied parents want is an education revolution."

It behooves any revolutionaries, educational or other, to consider all problems and consequences before they start tearing up the social pea patch. The voucher revolutionaries, instead of curing problems caused by public schooling, would make matters immeasurably worse.

Vouchers would greatly extend the welfare system so that middle-class taxpayers would pay for private as well as public schooling for the poor. People without children, or parents who homeschool, would have to pay taxes for both public and private school. On the crucial principle that control always follows subsidy, the voucher scheme would extend government domination from the public schools to the as-yet more or less independent private schools.

Especially in regard to the suburbs, the voucher scheme would wreck the fairly worthwhile existing suburban schools in order to subject them to a new form of egalitarian forced busing, in which inner-city kids would be foisted upon the suburban schools. A most unwelcome "education revolution."

Moreover, by fatuously focussing on parental "choice," the voucher revolutionaries forget that expanding the "choices" of  poor parents by giving them more taxpayer money also restricts the "choices" of the suburban parents and private-school parents from having the sort of education that they want for their kids. The focus should not be on abstract "choice," but on money earned. The more money you or your family earns, the more "choices" you necessarily have on how to spend that money.

Furthermore, there is no need for "vouchers" for particular goods or services: for education vouchers, food stamps, housing vouchers, television vouchers, or what have you. By far the best "voucher," and the only voucher needed, is the dollar bill that you earn honestly, and don't grab from others, even if they are merely taxpayers.

How in the world did conservatives and libertarians allow themselves to fall into this trap, where in the name of "political realism" they not only abandoned their principles of liberty and private property, but also found themselves expending effort and resources on a hopelessly losing cause? By taking their eye off the ball, off the central necessity for the rights of private property. Instead they ran after such seemingly "realistic" goals as helping the poor and pushing egalitarianism. Vouchers lost big because people wanted to protect their communities against state depredations. The voucher advocates got precisely what they deserved.

If the voucher fans are not irredeemably wedded to the welfare state and egalitarianism, how can they pursue a course that would be "positive" and realistic, and yet also cleave to their own professed principles of liberty and property rights? They could: (1) repeal regulations on private schools; (2) cut swollen public school budgets; (3) insure strictly local control of public schools by the parents and taxpayers of the respective neighborhoods; and (4) cut taxes so people can opt out of public schools.

Let each locality make its own decisions on its schools and let the state and federal government get out completely. But this also means that the voucher policy wonks--most of whom reside in D.C., New York, and Los Angeles--should get out as well, and devote their considerable energies to fixing up the admittedly horrible public schools in their own urban backyards. 

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