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School Choice for Whom?

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There are two kinds of “school choice.” However, both of them suffer from the same fatal flaw.

The first kind of “school choice” is typified by what recently happened in my state of Florida. A Senate education panel just approved a bill “that would give parents the opportunity to pick any school in the state for their child, whether for academic or athletic reasons.”

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, with little discussion and no debate, recommended by a unanimous vote the “Choice in Sports” bill (SB684), which would allow a parent in Florida “from any school district in the state whose child is not subject to a current expulsion order to enroll his or her child in and transport his or her child to any public school that has not reached capacity in the district, subject to the maximum class size.” Legislators in favor of the measure emphasize that it gives parents more say in their children’s education and gives more options to parents who cannot move to a different school district.

The bill would also prohibit a school district from delaying eligibility or otherwise preventing “a student participating in controlled open enrollment or a choice program from being immediately eligible to participate in interscholastic and intrascholastic extracurricular activities.” This would make it easier and quicker for student athletes to join teams if they switch public schools in the middle of the school year, attend a charter or private school, or are home-schooled.

The approval by the education panel follows the earlier but also unanimous vote of approval by the Senate Education Pre-K–12 Committee.

But some school board members, district administrators, and school coaches across Florida don’t share the Senate committees’ enthusiasm for the bill. “Unfettered choice could hurt school finances, complicate building plans, and lead to families cherry-picking schools based on athletics alone,” they say. “The sports-choice provisions could create powerhouse programs, undermining teams at surrounding schools,” said one athletic director and coach. Also, the majority of Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) schools are opposed to an open-enrollment system that would allow non-public-school students to join any public school’s sports teams.

The other kind of “school choice” has been around a lot longer and has been an issue in almost every state.

It is the idea that government (at the federal or state level) should provide vouchers to parents of children in failing public schools (some say any public or private school) to enable them to enroll their children in the private school of their choice with little or no payment for tuition out of their own pocket. The school would then redeem the voucher for payment from the government that issued it.

Voucher proponents justify their position by emphasizing that parents should have a choice in where their children attend school and that students should not have to attend dangerous public schools that indoctrinate them with environmentalism, liberalism, socialism, statism, and political correctness instead of properly educating them. Even some professed libertarians have jumped on the educational-voucher bandwagon.

Voucher opponents counter that —

  • Vouchers will distort the marketplace by establishing a floor below which tuition will not go because they remove incentives for schools to compete on cost.
  • Vouchers will lead to increased dependency on the government.
  • Vouchers will lead to increased government regulation of private schools because it is inconceivable that the government would ever provide money to schools with no strings attached.
  • Vouchers will put many private schools that refuse to accept them out of business.
  • Vouchers are not an intermediate step toward a free market in education.
  • Vouchers will make private schools accountable to government instead of parents.
  • Vouchers will destroy the identity of sectarian schools.
  • Vouchers will make private schools inefficient because the incentive to keep costs down will be greatly diminished.
  • Vouchers are not what enables parents to have “school choice.”

Both kinds of “school choice” suffer from the same fatal flaw. The people actually paying for it don’t have any “school choice” at all.

The government forcibly takes money from people (many of whom don’t even have any children) through compulsory taxation and uses it to pay for the education of other people’s children.

It doesn’t matter if the education is taking place in a public school of the parents’ choice or a private school paid by vouchers. The whole concept of “school choice” is a misnomer. Giving one group of Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children is immoral and unjust.

If that was describing anything but education, it would be denounced as an income-transfer program and, in the case of vouchers, a subsidy to private industry, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

Aside from public schools, parents throughout the United States have an abundance of choices right now when it comes to the education of their children: parochial schools, Montessori schools, Jewish schools, Christian schools, Muslim schools, independent private schools, private tutors, home-schooling, community schooling, unschooling, online schooling. Parents have educational choice just as they have food choice, clothing choice, recreation choice, and toy choice.

The fact that some people don’t have the money to pay for their preferred education choice doesn’t justify forcing someone else to pay for it.

There is nothing so inherently special about education that government should be providing it or forcing people to pay for it. If the government is to provide or pay for educational services, then why not other services, such as haircuts, dry cleaning, and car repair? Why doesn’t the government give every family in America a vacation voucher every year to be used at the destination of their choice? And, to ensure that every American has “choice,” why doesn’t the government just take every penny we earn and then distribute vouchers to every family for food, clothing, housing, recreation, entertainment, medical care, transportation, and education?

Critics of public education, mainly conservatives, although they are good at pointing out the problems with public education, never address the real issue. Their focus on the power of the teachers’ unions, the U.S. Department of Education, the bloated educational bureaucracy at every level, falling test scores, the graduation of functional illiterates, the promotion of Islam and downplaying of Christianity, sex-education programs, incompetent teachers, school violence, the availability of drugs in schools, and the indoctrination that takes place in the classroom never strikes at the root of the problem: government funding of education through taxation. It is no wonder that non-libertarian critics of public education have no real solution. They should have listened to what the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote about education many years ago in his book Liberalism: “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 associations and institutions.”

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