fbpx

School Vouchers are a Victory for Liberty

The last hundred years have witnessed a great struggle between state control and more libertarian forms of social ordering. Now that socialism—the hard-edged way of state control—has been largely discredited, a softer edged way—government control over primary and secondary education—is perhaps the most important fault line in this battle.

Thus, it is very welcome news that in Hart v. State the North Carolina Supreme Court last week upheld a school voucher program. The plan would provide $4,200 to parents with income at 133 percent or below the poverty line to send their children to a private school of their choice. The case turned on the state rather than the federal constitution, because happily the Supreme Court has already upheld school vouchers against an Establishment Clause challenge.

I am not an expert in North Carolina constitutional law, but one argument in particular interested me. The dissenters in the case contended that the voucher program did not serve only public purposes, because the private schools did not have to comply with government standards to assure that students “would participate and compete in society” by receiving a sound education. The legislation did require that schools receiving vouchers require attendance, meet certain health and safety standards, and provide periodic standardized testing.  But these requirements were not enough for the dissent.

What was remarkable in my view was that the dissenters dismissed the capacity of  parental choice to promote education accountability and indeed excellence. Unlike the public school system, a voucher program allows parents to choose in an educational marketplace what schools their children will attend.  The dissent conceded that, “it may be true” that “parents will not send their children to schools that do not provide a solid education,” but nevertheless baldy stated that marketplace standards cannot show that the voucher program is justified by its public purposes.

Why ever not? Unless the dissenters are willing to dispute the value of parental choice, which they do not, the legislature certainly is within its rights in claiming that parents can likely choose the school that will best serve their own children’s needs. Indeed, given that parents are in no way required to take up the vouchers offered, they can still choose to send their children to government schools if they believe they are better for their children.

The dissent in the North Carolina voucher case is a paradigm example of progressivism’s rejection of a civic order generated by mediating institutions like families and private schools in favor of  a top down social order dominated by government.  But given that North Carolina judges need to run for reelection, they cannot openly say that they do not trust parents to make wise decisions for their children. Nor can they proclaim the real fear behind much of the opposition to school choice—that private schools will fail to inculcate the kind of progressive values flowing from the bureaucrats and unions which often capture the operation of government schools.

Vouchers for education advance a far more spontaneous order than direct government control of schools.  The North Carolina decision is thus a great victory for liberty.  May it embolden voucher proponents in other states.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on July 27, 2015 at 08:52:25 am

[…] School Vouchers are a Victory for Liberty […]

read full comment
Image of Make Voting Harder or Face the Rise of Pelosinomics - Freedom's Floodgates
Make Voting Harder or Face the Rise of Pelosinomics - Freedom's Floodgates
on July 27, 2015 at 10:52:41 am

A free public education is the 10th Plank of the Communist Manifesto and has been used by statists of both the Left and the Right to try and control the thinking,through education,of the youth of America. With that said,the only answer for those that believe in liberty is to pass a Constitutional Amendment,on the Federal level,that separates education from the state. Similar to the 1st Amendment which forbids the establishment of a state religion. With only home schooling or private schooling allowed and state funding strictly prohibited by law. This would include all K through 12 public schools,community colleges and all state universities whose assets must be sold off.

read full comment
Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry
on July 27, 2015 at 12:23:12 pm

As the North Carolina state constitution provides, "The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right."

So is it a right or a privilege? The problem with the NC Constitution is that it's junk.

read full comment
Image of Roger
Roger
on July 27, 2015 at 16:24:39 pm

I just got through praising vouchers, largely for the reasons libertarian jerry cites: it really treads close to the establishment of religion. So naturally, I must now disagree with both jerry and McGinnis.

Again, I want government to act to promote bona fide governmental purposes. But contra jerry, I argue that disseminating certain skills and teaching a modicum of values conducive to social cohesion may be warranted. In a competitive world, a state that does not teach its children to read will not long be a state. Thus, it is not obvious to me that the state should not finance these ends – and even that the state might be its own supplier under circumstances where there were few other suppliers.

More generally, however, I argue that government should seek education services the same way it seeks paperclips: by buying them them from the private sector. But consistent with my view that government should seek to promote bona fide governmental purposes, I want government to test to ensure that it gets what it’s paying for. (Ideally, government would pay service providers only after kids demonstrate that they have learned whatever it is government has determined they should learn.)

Just as I’m not persuaded that food stamps should be exchangeable for all types of goods, I’m not persuaded that vouchers should be exchangeable for all kinds of “educations.” If government pays the piper, government should call the tune – at least up to the point that government has a bona fide interest in which tune is called.

For example, imagine that in exchange for a $4200 voucher, the Learning Through Labor School offers to provide parents a kickback of $4000 and to put the kids to work in a sweatshop. Parents’ interest in enrolling their kids in this school would be pretty straightforward. But would it be fair to dismiss taxpayer’s skepticism as merely “progressivism’s rejection of a civic order generated by mediating institutions like families and private schools”?

No. Government’s interest and parents’ interest may often coincide – but I know of no legal requirement to presume this would always be true. I’d want government to check that it was getting what it paid for – whether it was paying for quality paperclips or quality educations.

True, there would be prolonged disputes about what type of education government would have a bona fine interest in buying, and how to go about ensuring that it got what it paid for. McGinnins reports that North Carolina limits the use of vouchers exclusively to schools that “require attendance, meet certain health and safety standards, and provide periodic standardized testing.” Is that enough? Unless there’s some requirement that those test scores compare reasonably well with some standard (say, with the test scores of kids at public schools), these standards would not preclude the Learning Through Labor School from participating in the program. In short, it’s not obvious that this voucher program would promote the public interest. But a slight variation on it might.

Recall that “trust but verify” was Reagan’s mantra. Why would we want to embrace slipshod government procurement practices for education?

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 27, 2015 at 19:16:16 pm

In the scheme of things,government or state education is a relatively new idea. Basically public education,in America,hardly existed on a national level until the later half of the 19th Century. Basically it was copied by the Progressives on the Prussian model and later adapted to America. It was John Dewey and Edward Bellamy,among others,who introduced public education for 3 basic purposes, One purpose was to train factory workers to read,write and do basic math. This occurred because large numbers of young,because of the agriculture revolution,were coming off of the farms and had to be trained to do factory work. The second reason was that America was becoming an empire and it needed a large military to police that empire and therefore needed to have a military that was educated,again,in the basics and also how to follow orders. Third,there was a very large influx of immigrants that were migrating from around the world and their children had to be educated especially in language skills. Basically,public education was set up to control the masses into accepting the "American Way." Today,it has basically become indoctrination centers not education centers. This is one of the reasons that,over the last 35 years or so,the Federal government has been sticking their noses into public education. If one truly believes in liberty then they should believe that public education should be abolished and thrown into the dustbin of history forever.

read full comment
Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry
on July 27, 2015 at 19:25:09 pm

In the above reply I meant to say francis Bellamy,not Edward Bellamy.

read full comment
Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry
on July 27, 2015 at 21:51:30 pm

You said: "If government pays the piper, government should call the tune – at least up to the point that government has a bona fide interest in which tune is called.

I would say that if the people pay the government (they do), then they (the people) should call the tune. It's pretty simple, liberty.

read full comment
Image of Roger
Roger
on July 27, 2015 at 21:56:46 pm

Nobody:

Another seemingly sensible approach, YET:

"Ideally, government would pay service providers only after kids demonstrate that they have learned whatever it is government has determined they should learn"

And 1) just why is it that government ought to determine WHAT students should learn?
2) More importantly, just what IS government in this context? - other than a group of self appointed *experts* who quite rightly may be accused of being more interested in PROMOTING a specific ideology / orientation toward history and tradition. The sad thing is, that given the motivations of many in the education establishment, the school publishing industry, anxious to or fearful of, not lose(ing) profits will go along with the revisionist history. so here we have a confluence of *motivations,* the effect of which is to assure that a *guvmnt* viewpoint (actually a bunch of leftist hacks) is fostered upon an otherwise unsuspecting (and rationally ignorant) populace.

Now, my friend, if it were solely limited to guvmnt standards for math, engineering (not science, as that too has been politicized) then we might be on to something. Until such time as there is, to use the left's latest bludgeon, *diversity* in ideology in education, keep the *guvmnt* out of content.

Also, re: the $4000 rebate issue: Why is this any different than any other fraud? - recent news items indicate that at just one school alone, a grad assistant made off with $192,000 in fraudulent "rebates" on diversity classes. No, it is simple fraud and the *guvmnt* rightly has a cause of action against the miscreants, both real and imagined.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on July 27, 2015 at 23:09:24 pm

John Dewey and [Francis] Bellamy, among others, … introduced public education for 3 basic purposes. One purpose was to train factory workers to read, write and do basic math. This occurred because large numbers of young, because of the agriculture revolution, were coming off of the farms and had to be trained to do factory work. The second reason was that America was becoming an empire and it needed a large military to police that empire and therefore needed to have a military that was educated, again, in the basics and also how to follow orders. Third, there was a very large influx of immigrants that were migrating from around the world and their children had to be educated especially in language skills. Basically, public education was set up to control the masses into accepting the “American Way.”

Characterize it as you like, how would history have unfolded if the US did not develop its population to work in factories as mechanization displaced ever more farm workers? If the US had not developed an army? If the US had not educated its immigrant population? Yes, all of this runs counter to the libertarian philosophy – and more’s the pity for that philosophy.

Yes, the education of our youth is terrible. And has been since the time of Socrates. We continue to bemoan our education system – and continue to have the most creative, dynamic economy in the world. If we are destined to endure such a fate, I’ll try to be stoic about it.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 27, 2015 at 23:19:38 pm

I would say that if the people pay the government (they do), then they (the people) should call the tune. It’s pretty simple, liberty.

Sounds good, but this rather begs the question, how do we determine the will of "the people"? Should we defend every piece of government embezzlement or theft of public property on the theory that at least some of "the people" liked this allocation of public resources?

I surmise the more traditional method is to say that "the people" speak through their government.

Let me add that you, I, and Hayek may well share some enthusiasm for a government-enforced guaranteed minimum income -- an income that people could spend for (nearly) any purpose they pleased. But I think that school vouchers are designed for address a different purpose. I merely propose that government establish appropriate safeguards to ensure, as far as possible, that the vouchers are used for that purpose.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 28, 2015 at 00:19:09 am

[J]ust why is it that government ought to determine WHAT students should learn?

Consider the converse: Assume government has no interest in what students learn. What purpose would government have to fund such learning?

So I’ll adopt libertarian jerry’s perspective here: If government really has no interest in the content of education, then I have difficulty seeing what interest government would have in promoting education.

More importantly, just what IS government in this context? – other than a group of self appointed *experts*….

What else? How about a group of elected people a/k/a our representatives, or their designees? True, you or I may not concur with every perspective of these people; what else is new?

The sad thing is, that given the motivations of many in the education establishment, the school publishing industry, anxious to or fearful of, not lose(ing) profits will go along with the revisionist history. so here we have a confluence of *motivations,* the effect of which is to assure that a *guvmnt* viewpoint (actually a bunch of leftist hacks) is fostered upon an otherwise unsuspecting (and rationally ignorant) populace.

Last I checked, the revisionist history being promoting in textbooks was the history that met with the approval of the Texas State Board of Education, a 15-member elected panel dominated by Republicans. They have been characterized in many ways, but “leftist hacks” is a new one.

For what it’s worth, I have repeatedly stated my view that government has an interest in teaching skills and some values related to social cohesion. History is a fraught subject – one that might well fall outside government’s purview (except insofar as it is related to social cohesion).

Also, re: the $4000 rebate issue: Why is this any different than any other fraud?

I don’t know that it is. I would hope that we’d establish reasonable practices to limit all kinds of fraud. But if we don’t establish any meaningful standards for “education,” then we have no basis to call the Learning Through Labor School a fraud.

Look, this isn’t that hard: Decide what we want – and then go buy it. But don’t go buy something and retroactively conclude, “Oh, I guess that’s what we really wanted all along….”

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 28, 2015 at 01:08:40 am

I'm sorry Nobody,but I can't buy your arguments. lets ban public education.

read full comment
Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry
on July 28, 2015 at 07:16:46 am

"Sounds good, but this rather begs the question, how do we determine the will of “the people”?"

One clue is that many of "the people" want to get the heck out of public schools, hence the school voucher law.

read full comment
Image of Roger
Roger
on July 28, 2015 at 10:02:54 am

“Sounds good, but this rather begs the question, how do we determine the will of “the people”?”

One clue is that many of “the people” want to get the heck out of public schools, hence the school voucher law.

Great. And evidence suggests "the people" want Audis. Which is to say, many individual people want Audis. But what does that fact say about the duty of taxpayers to subsidize that choice? Nothing.

Similarly, I see no duty on the party of taxpayers to subsidize the choice of individuals regarding "education," where "education" is a term that has not been defined.

However, I suggest that taxpayers do have an interest in ensuring that their fellow citizens have some useful skills and a modicum of willingness to band together in times of adversity. That is, if we declare that vouchers can be used only in a manner designed to achieve maximum benefits for society/taxpayers -- which may or may not coincide with maximum benefit for any given parent -- then society has cause to finance vouchers. If not, then not.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 28, 2015 at 12:14:43 pm

oh yeah, I forgot about the law where everyone gets and Audi. Good point!

read full comment
Image of Roger
Roger
on July 28, 2015 at 12:19:00 pm

As Nobody said, "Similarly, I see no duty on the party of taxpayers to subsidize the choice of individuals regarding “education,” where “education” is a term that has not been defined."

Speaking of undefined terms, how about your reference to "acheiv[ing] maximum benefits for society" and "modicum of willingness to band together in times of adversity".

Come on, you really are making it up now!

read full comment
Image of Roger
Roger
on July 28, 2015 at 14:07:52 pm

re: Texas Board of Education appointed by Republicans!

Goodness, nobody really has supported Libertarian Jerry's position that there ain't a bit of difference between the two groups. Sadly, this is true in many respects - not the least of which is "education" where the GOP *defers* to the experts (so as not to get in hot water with the education establishment and their legion of supporters) AND the Democrats actively advance this "tomfoolery" now called American History.

I am glad to see that you are at long last supporting Jerry, and providing evidence that there is no difference between the two parties.

Fact is, irrespective of who appoints whom, education has been taken over by ideologues.
I simply call for a *DIVERSITY* of ideologies.

Nobody really would dispute that would they?

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on February 25, 2019 at 13:03:30 pm

i love what you have completed here. keep up the great writing!

read full comment
Image of AskDice
AskDice

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

Related