If proponents of school vouchers get their way, Americans might well be permanently saddled with one of the most massive government welfare programs in history. What began many years ago as a modest proposal to help those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder with their educational needs now threatens to encompass every child in America.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, free-market economist Milton Friedman exuded praise for a new voucher initiative in California — Proposition 38 — that will be voted upon this fall. Unlike other voucher initiatives that seek to help the poor escape public schooling, the California initiative would offer vouchers of $4,000 or more to every single student — rich, middle-class, and poor alike. Friedman wrote, “What is needed for a truly competitive educational industry is an unrestricted voucher of substantial size” that would “cover all students in the state.”
But Friedman is wrong. What is actually needed for a truly competitive educational industry is a free market in education, not another giant welfare scheme. And a truly free market would entail the end of all state involvement in education, including the termination of the educational welfare program known as vouchers.
School vouchers operate the way all welfare programs do, that is, by using the state’s taxing powers to take money from those to whom it belongs and distributing it to people to whom it does not belong. Of course, we have become so accustomed to this process that we rarely ask a fundamentally important question: Where is the morality in all this? Why shouldn’t parents bear the responsibility for the education of their own children? Why should people who don’t have children be forced to fund the educational expenses of someone else’s children?
And make no mistake about it: Despite claims from voucher proponents that vouchers are a “market-oriented” device designed to bring “competition” to the educational marketplace, the truth is that vouchers are just another wealth-transfer program. Families with children use voucher schemes to get into the pocketbooks of those who don’t have children. The process brings to mind Frédéric Bastiat’s famous dictum, “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”
Voucher proponents, of course, are free to call for any welfare scheme they wish, but don’t truth-in-advertising and intellectual honesty dictate that they not describe vouchers as a free-market solution to education? After all, how in the world can a system that is based on coercive redistribution of wealth, compulsory school-attendance laws, school taxes, state licensure and regulation of schools, and a voucher tax-and-welfare scheme be reconciled with principles of the free market? “Free market” connotes the absence of state involvement in a peaceful activity, not the control of it.
The separation of school and state through the repeal of compulsory-attendance laws, school taxes, and educational welfare would be infinitely superior to the multitude of voucher schemes that are being proposed all over the nation. Not only would educational liberty be consistent with fundamental moral principles, it also would help us restore America’s heritage of individual liberty and free markets.
The end of state involvement in education would finally bring an end to the perpetual political wrangling over whether there should be prayer in public schools, whether creationism or evolution should be taught, and which books should be in the school library. Each family would be free to choose the educational vehicles that best conform to its own beliefs and values.
Educational freedom would remove decisions on education from the hands of state officials and restore sovereignty to the family, where it belongs. Moreover, free enterprise in education would enable entrepreneurs to compete freely in the furnishing of an infinite diversity of educational vehicles for consumers. A process of free and open competition in the furnishing of education would produce what the free market always produces — the highest-quality product possible.
Who stands to gain the most from a free market in education? People on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, especially those families whose children are trapped in government schools and who also have seen firsthand the destructive nature of government welfare programs. These are the people who should be leading the fight against vouchers and in favor of a free market in education.