With Government Money Come Strings

I apologize.

Last week, I wrote enthusiastically about Utah’s chance to have school vouchers. By now, we know whether voters said yes or no.

Either way, while a voucher experiment is a good thing, and far superior to a government-run monopoly, I wonder if I wasn’t too enthusiastic.

 As Sheldon Richman, editor of The Freeman magazine and author of Separating School and State, puts it: "’Public’ money going to private schools cannot bode well for the future of those schools. Note that the Utah law requires private schools to give a nationally recognized exam — one approved by the national education establishment. But he who controls the exam controls the curriculum. Schools will have to teach to the test. That will limit innovation and make the private schools more like the public schools."

Maybe the government can’t really create choice affirmatively.

We know that government money comes with strings. Federal highway funds came with requirements for seat-belt laws and 55-mile-per-hour speed limits.

In the 1970s, Grove City College in Pennsylvania was ordered to certify that it complied with Title IX, which outlaws sex discrimination. The private liberal-arts school was not accused of discrimination but nevertheless objected to the order on grounds that it took no federal money. The feds insisted, saying that since some students received federal scholarships, that amounted to an indirect subsidy from the government. Grove City took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court — and lost.

It would be astounding if the government didn’t put conditions on its grants. In fact, not to do so would appear irresponsible. That’s a good reason to avoid taking government money in the first place.

Even without direct conditions, government money taints its recipients. Education scholar Charles Glenn wrote in 1989, "For those who believe strongly in religious schooling and fear that government influence will come with public funding, reason exists for their concern. Catholic or Protestant schools in [France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Canada, and West Germany] have increasingly been assimilated to the assumptions and guiding values of public schooling. This process does not [even] seem to be the result of deliberate efforts . . . but rather of the difficulty, for a private school playing by public rules, to maintain its distance from the common assumptions and habits of the predominant system."

Once vouchers are widespread, we can expect the education establishment, especially the teachers’ unions, to find ways to turn the program to its advantage. It won’t have to look far for ideas. Several years ago the New Democrat, published by the Democratic Leadership Council and Progressive Policy Institute (the "moderate" Democrats with whom Bill Clinton has long been associated and an organization started by my brother-in-law), recommended that any voucher program force private schools to admit all children and "meet or exceed specified performance standards to continue receiving taxpayer funds."

The editorial, titled "Counterpunching on Vouchers," stated: "Such an amendment would effectively turn voucher-supported private schools into public charter schools. A public school is not defined by who ‘owns’ it, but rather by two features: universal access and accountability to the public for results." In other words, voucher money is a foot in the door for the "educrats."

If vouchers contain this potential danger, what can be done to help get kids out of dismal government schools? A better alternative is a tax credit for any parent who pays for private schooling or anyone else who helps put child through non-government schools.

Of course, to us libertarians, the best idea is to separate school and state altogether.
How would parents afford tuition? Well, they’d have more money if they weren’t taxed so heavily to pay for incompetently run government schools. Already, many private schools do a better job than government schools for half the cost. Throughout Africa, parents far poorer than Americans pay to send their children to for-profit schools. For Americans who truly lack tuition money, private charity would help, as I do through the wonderful nonprofit, Student Sponsor Partners.

Education is too important to be left to government. The freer parents and entrepreneurs are, the more innovative American schooling will be — and the more kids will learn.