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Educational Gimmickry

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The coming controversy in the debate in education policy — actually, it’s here already — will be over the matter of equality of funding. In several states, the courts or legislatures have decided that it is unfair for communities with higher-priced real estate to have better schools than communities with lower-priced real estate. Their solution is to have the state government dole out money to the school districts equally. This has upset people in the more affluent areas, but it cheers egalitarians everywhere.

In most states, government school districts are financed by taxes on the assessed value of the real estate in those districts. This naturally leads to disparities in school budgets. The schools in an affluent county usually have more money and nicer facilities than the schools in a poor county in the same state. Per-pupil spending is sometimes higher among the rich than among the poor.

Some people think that this is unfair and have done something about it. In Vermont and elsewhere, the state courts have said the practice is illegal and has to stop. As a result, in some states the revenues from property taxes are sent to the state capitals where they are then distributed among the various school districts on an equal per-pupil basis. This, in turn, has upset some wealthy people, most notably author John Irving in Vermont (no libertarian, he), who believe that court-ordered cross-subsidies nullify people’s decisions to buy homes in “better” school districts. In at least one state, Michigan, the property tax has been replaced entirely as a school-funding source by the sales tax, which is collected and distributed evenly by the state government.

This seems to be an irreconcilable conflict that will engender increasing bitterness in years to come. Let’s look at each side. First the egalitarians. They argue that state constitutions hold, and most people believe, that every child has a right to a good education. This principle is at the base of “public education.” It is ostensibly the reason why the taxpayers finance education in the first place and why parents may send their children to government schools regardless of their ability to pay. (It’s not the real reason — social control was the reason — but let that go for now.)

If we accept the principle for argument’s sake, how can gross disparities in the quality of public schooling be justified? If it is the people’s duty to provide education to all children whatever their parents’ income, how can society be permitted to provide a superior education to the children of wealthy parents? That would seem to conflict with the egalitarian premise of public schools. Indeed, I’d imagine that the egalitarians would push their argument further and call for equalization nationwide. Some states have a higher total real-estate value than others. Why should the children in those states have a better education than children in states with less valuable real estate? We could respond that the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government no authority whatsoever over education, but that is not likely to satisfy the egalitarians. Perhaps the Constitution should be amended to make the “right to education” enforceable at the federal level. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial discrimination in public schooling, was a step toward just that policy.

Another step, which is bound to come sooner or later, is the extension of the egalitarian principle to people who send their children to private schools. After all, if the egalitarians are correct, why should a wealthy person be able to buy a better education in the private sector than poorer people are able to get in the government schools? (Mickey Kaus’s book The End of Equality made this argument.)

To the egalitarian argument, the pro-public-school opponents of equalization would reply that the United States has a tradition of local control of schools and that their communities ought to be able to spend as much as they want on their children’s education without having limits imposed by the needs of other communities. John Irving said the new Vermont policy smacks of Marxism, and he has started his own school to avoid the policy. (An aside: Irving’s point about Marxism is incorrect, for as Ralph Raico reminds us, Marx said, “to each according to his need,” not “to each equally.”) Marxist or not, the idea is surely collectivist. No community may spend more on its children’s education until all communities are able to spend that amount. That understandably offends people who do not wish to be held back to the level of the poorest in their state.

Given the premise of public schooling, both arguments seem strong. How can this dispute be resolved? If we side with equalization, we sacrifice cherished local control. If we side with local control, we sacrifice the equal “right” to education.

As Oliver Hardy might have said: Well, government, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into. Here is another application of the rights test I’ve discussed on other occasions; namely, if an alleged right requires government to do more than simply protect people from violence and fraud, then it is not a right at all, but rather a pseudo-right. In this case, the alleged right to an education leads to tax-funded cross-subsidies and even to the position that no one may spend more on his children’s education than anyone else. To do so, in this view, is to deprive others of their right; some of that money could be used to equalize school conditions. Thus, government must intervene to enforce the “right” by stopping people from spending whatever they like on their own children.

Advocates of school vouchers would reply that their solution to the education problem offers a way out of the dilemma. In fact, John Irving has become a voucher advocate in the heat of the controversy. Vouchers would allocate the same amount of money to each student, but the plan would permit people to spend more than the voucher’s value on their children’s education. That might satisfy Irving, but it won’t satisfy the egalitarians.

Nor will it satisfy those who see danger in any voucher plan. While it might avoid the compulsory-equalization problem, it embraces the cross-subsidy that has always been at the heart of government education, America’s first welfare program. Money still would be taken from some and given to others in order to equalize government per-pupil spending. The plan would create an entitlement program that lobbyists would labor to expand every year. On top of that, the egalitarians, in the name of quality education, will ensure that vouchers go only to approved schools. Those schools that do not satisfy government standards will be off-limits to voucher students. Thus, the voucher plan will subvert hitherto independent schools. It will bring equalization through leveling down. For what purpose? So some people can have a little short-run choice in education. The tradeoff is not worth it.

All such schemes embrace the fallacious “right to education.” If the right to education isn’t a pseudo-right, then nothing is. It’s about government power, not freedom. And it’s not only about the power to determine how much money people may spend on their children’s education. It’s also about the power to define the very concept of “education” itself. If the government is to guarantee every child an education, it will have to define the term. What is it guaranteeing? How would we know whether it has succeeded? Surely, advocates of public schooling don’t mean to say that every child merely has a right to sit in a classroom several hours a day with an adult who calls himself a teacher standing up front. (Although in practice, that’s often what happens.) They have something more substantive in mind when they say “education.”

This is why compulsory-attendance laws are always dangerous. Some might ask: what’s wrong with those laws? Everyone thinks his children should be educated, and anyone is free to send his kids to nongovernment schools. So isn’t compulsory attendance an innocuous formality?

Not at all. If government says to parents, “You must send your children to school,” it will assume the power to define what a school is. Otherwise the law would be vacuous. To define “school” is also to define “curriculum” and other related concepts. Without those definitions, parents could say anything is a school and claim they have satisfied the requirement. Even if government doesn’t spell out definitions, it does the equivalent by requiring all children to take standardized tests. Tests are an indirect method of imposing a curriculum.

If Americans are once again to have education freedom — more precisely, the freedom to raise their children by their best judgment — we must challenge government schooling and the phony “right to education” root and branch. Glass-and-paste political gimmickry won’t get us to separation of school and state, which is the only objective worth fighting for.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.