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Who Should Pay for the Education of Children?

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Who but parents are responsible for deciding for their children the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the toys they play with, the church they attend, the company they keep, the music they listen to, and the programs they watch on television? We may not like some of the decisions that parents make for their children. Parents sometimes make bad decisions that result in negative consequences in the future for their children. But only die-hard collectivists, socialists, and statists would say that the upbringing of children was the responsibility of anyone but their parents.

Except when it comes to education.

When it comes to the subject of education, most Republicans, many conservatives, and even some libertarians suddenly reject individualism for collectivism, the free market for socialism, and laissez faire for statism.

“Parents should have the ability to decide where to send their child to school,” says Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal, a Republican. Now, on the surface, Governor Jindal’s statement looks like anything but collectivism, socialism, or statism. Who but adherents to those ideologies could possibly disagree with the sentiment that parents should have the ability to decide where to send their child to school? Nevertheless, when you read the governor’s statement in its context, there is plenty to disagree with.

According to an Associated Press story that appeared in newspapers in Louisiana and nationwide, the U.S. Justice Department is trying to stop the state of Louisiana from distributing school vouchers in 34 of the state’s 70 school districts because they remain under a desegregation court order.

The Louisiana voucher program was instituted in 2008 for low-income New Orleans students in failing schools. It was then expanded statewide. The voucher program allows children in school districts graded C, D, or F to receive public money to attend private schools.

In papers filed in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, the Justice Department said that many of the vouchers that were distributed in Louisiana in the 2012-13 school year to nearly 600 public school students in districts that are still under desegregation orders “impeded the desegregation process.” The Department also maintains that Louisiana gave vouchers during the current school year to students in at least 22 districts remaining under desegregation orders. The federal court is being asked to permanently block the state from awarding vouchers in districts that are under desegregation orders, unless those districts seek court approval.

Jindal called the Justice Department’s action “shameful.” He charged Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder with “trying to keep kids trapped in failing public schools against the wishes of their parents.” Said the governor,

The Obama administration thinks parents should have to seek their approval any time parents want to send their child to a school of their choice. After generations of being denied a choice, parents finally can choose a school for their child, but now the federal government is stepping in to prevent parents from exercising this right. Shame on them. Parents should have the ability to decide where to send their child to school.

Jindal makes one valid point, neglects to make another more important one, and fails to see the real issue.

It is an incontrovertible fact that liberals oppose vouchers because they love public schools and depend on the support of the powerful teachers’ unions. The Obama administration is no exception; it is simply using the issue of the racial composition of certain Louisiana schools to destroy the state’s voucher program and keep as many children as possible in public schools. The Louisiana state education superintendent pointed out that “almost all the students receiving vouchers are black” and how ironic it was that “rules established to combat racism were being called on to keep black students in failing schools.” Jindal is right to be upset that the Obama administration is trying to destroy Louisiana’s school voucher program.

But Jindal fails to make another point, and one that is much more important. Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to have anything to do with education? Why do federal desegregation orders even exist? Why does the federal government even know the racial composition of any school in Louisiana? Since there is no right to a government-provided or government-funded education in the first place, the federal government has no authority whatsoever to intervene in a state school system for any reason. From a constitutional perspective, the manner in which children are educated is entirely the concern of state governments, not the federal government. But from a practical perspective, what could Jindal say? The public schools in Louisiana depend on federal money to supplement the state and local dollars they receive.

The real issue is who should pay for the education of children. With or without vouchers, all parents have school choice right now. Just like they have car choice, restaurant choice, clothes choice, and vacation choice. The real issue is not whether parents should be able to choose the school their children attend; the real issue is who is going to pay the tuition. All parents have school choice right now: public school, charter school, private school, Christian school, parochial school, private tutor, on-line school, home school, Montessori school — they just may not have the resources needed to pay for their choice.

Education is a service. It is a service just like car repair, lawn mowing, and haircutting. If you can’t or simply don’t want to repair your car, mow your lawn, or cut your hair, then you pay someone else to do it.

Giving some Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children is wealth redistribution differing not a whit from the government’s giving some Americans vouchers to get their car repaired, their lawn mowed, or their hair cut.

Conservatives in general and libertarians in principle who oppose government housing vouchers (Section 8) and food vouchers (food stamps) are terribly inconsistent when they support government education vouchers.

And vouchers are even worse than the government’s simply giving each family x amount of dollars to provide for their children’s education because they are a subsidy to private industry.

It is bad enough that the government taxes everyone to fund public schools; it is even worse when the government taxes everyone to also fund private ones.

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