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Vouchers: For and Against

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The recent school shooting in Ohio in which three students were killed has focused attention once again on the dangers of public schools. It is bad enough that students in public schools are being dumbed down instead of educated; are exposed to rampant sexual promiscuity; are forced to get every available vaccine; are put on medication; face bodily harm by overzealous security thugs; have to fight off sexual advances by teachers; and are indoctrinated with the glories of environmentalism, liberalism, and statism — attending a public school can also get you killed by another student.

The Ohio school shooting has overshadowed the release on the same day of a comprehensive evaluation of the Milwaukee school-voucher program.

According to the report by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas, students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program — the nation’s oldest private school-choice program currently in operation — graduate on time at a rate higher than students enrolled in traditional public schools, are more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and have a higher level of achievement in reading and science. Competitive pressure from the voucher program is also said to have raised public-school achievement levels.

The Milwaukee program has recently raised income limits, expanded the pool of eligible schools in the program, and added a provision allowing currently enrolled families to stay in the program regardless of future income increases. Students qualify for the education vouchers only on the basis of their residency in the city of Milwaukee and their family income. For the 2012-13 school year, a new student’s family income cannot exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Thus, a family of four can make as much as $69,801 and still qualify for the program. A student continuing in the program or a student who was on a waiting list at a participating school in the prior year does not have to meet income-eligibility requirements. The maximum amount of the voucher is $6,442. In some cases, the Milwaukee Public School system will provide transportation to the private school the parents have chosen or partially reimburse them for their transportation costs.

More than 23,000 students in Wisconsin and more than 210,000 children nationwide participate in private school-choice voucher programs. And bills relating to vouchers were introduced in at least thirty state legislatures last year.

So what’s not to like? Students are being educated, students are graduating, and students are going on to college.

According to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program “Informational Paper 28,” published by the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau,

The Milwaukee parental choice program was established in 1989 Act 336. Under this program, state funds are used to pay for the cost of children from low-income families in the City of Milwaukee to attend, at no charge, private schools located in the city.

The State Superintendent is required to pay the parent or guardian of a pupil enrolled in a private school under the choice program from a separate, general purpose revenue (GPR) sum sufficient appropriation established for this purpose. This payment is made in four equal installments in September, November, February, and May of each school year and the checks are sent to the private school. The parent or guardian is required to restrictively endorse the check for the use of the private school.

It is bad enough that governments fund public schools, since that is not a legitimate purpose of government, but it’s even worse when governments subsidize private businesses. And that’s exactly what private schools are. There is nothing magical about being in the business of education. The government’s transferring taxpayer money to private schools is no different from the government’s transferring taxpayer money to any other business.

Should the government give vouchers for car repair, sporting events, or gym memberships? Why not? What makes entities that offer education services so special that they are entitled to receive tax dollars?

And things don’t change just because the government is involved in offering a service. For example, if the U.S. postal system were funded entirely by tax dollars and every American were entitled to ship packages for free, companies such as UPS and Fed Ex would still exist to serve customers who didn’t like the poor customer service, long lines, and slow delivery of the post office. Customers of UPS and Fed Ex would be making the choice to pay twice: once with their tax dollars and again when they ship their packages at UPS or Fed Ex. But if instead of shutting down the government postal system, the government gave people who didn’t want to use the post office a voucher to pay for shipping their packages at UPS or Fed Ex, that would be wealth redistribution and subsidies to private businesses. And it wouldn’t matter if the government gave shipping vouchers only to low-income shippers.

Conservative and libertarian supporters of vouchers can’t have it both ways. If government funding of food stamps, Medicaid, WIC, SCHIP, TANF, energy and housing assistance, et cetera are income-transfer schemes, then so is government funding of educational vouchers. Even if state education budgets went down every time parents enrolled their child in a private school, vouchers would still be subsidies to private businesses.

Government funding of education is incompatible with individual liberty, free markets, and limited government. That is true whether the government operates the schools, gives money directly to private schools in behalf of students, or gives money to parents to pay for their children’s education in a private or alternative school.

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 still the redistribution of wealth. All parents in every city and county in the United States have choice right now when it comes to their children’s education. Depending on where someone lives, there are, in addition to public schools, parochial schools, Montessori schools, independent private schools, Jewish schools, Christian schools, and Muslim schools. And no matter where someone lives, there are the options of private tutors, homeschooling, community schooling, unschooling, online schooling, or no schooling.

The fact that some people don’t have the money to pay for their education choice doesn’t justify government vouchers for education, any more than people’s not having the money to pay for their choice of shoes, cut of meat, or automobile justifies government vouchers for clothing, food, or transportation.

But all voucher programs are not created equal. In my state of Florida there is the Step Up For Students voucher program, an initiative of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It is a privately funded voucher program similar to what exists in other states. Under the Florida program,

Corporations that owe Florida corporate income tax, insurance premium tax, alcohol beverage excise tax, direct pay sales and use tax, or oil and gas severance tax can redirect a portion of their tax obligation to non-profit organizations that award K-12 scholarships to students qualifying for the federal government’s free or reduced lunch program.

Parents can use these scholarships to send their children to a public or private school that provides the learning environment that best meets the child’s particular needs. The corporation, in turn, will receive a 100 percent tax credit for every dollar it donates. Participating corporations redirect funds they must already pay to the state, enabling them to help low-income children achieve greater educational excellence at no cost to the corporation.

Participating companies do not have to be domiciled in Florida; the only requirement is that they have tax liability with the state. Dollars can fund scholarships for children in a specific region(s) or across the state.

The Step Up For Students program currently provides an education voucher as high as $4,011 for more than 38,000 children at 1,185 participating schools in Florida.

Although the Step Up for Students program is more of a quasi-private voucher program, since the corporations that fund it must either make a donation or pay their Florida tax liability, it has an additional benefit that makes it superior to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. It effectively lowers the amount of tax revenue given to the state of Florida. And this doesn’t mean that other taxes in Florida are necessarily higher. Florida is still one of the few states with no income tax.

A true privately funded voucher program is something that advocates of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government could wholeheartedly support. Thus, it is possible to be both for and against vouchers at the same time. It simply depends on how they are funded.

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