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The Classical Liberal Arguments for School Vouchers

Donald Trump’s nominee for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is an advocate of school vouchers.  One should not exaggerate how much influence she will have in promoting this cause. The United States Department of Education has little direct authority over K-12 education and it certainly should not be given any more, because education is quintessentially a state and local issue.  But any cabinet position is a bully pulpit, and classical liberals should hope she uses it to create a more favorable climate for state and local voucher initiatives.

The conventional argument for vouchers, itself classically liberal in nature, is that in the long run they are likely to improve human capital, because they will introduce more competition by supplying more private schools for those parents who want to use them. Schools that do better at matching students with the education that is best for them will gain students at the expense of those that do not. Moreover, more competition will lead to more beneficial innovations that will be shared throughout the K-12 educational system. Thus, even if some schools funded by vouchers do not perform well at first, a more competitive system has greater dynamism than a more government controlled system.

While there is much to be said for the human capital argument, yet another classical liberal argument for vouchers is that they promote a free citizenry by creating schools that compete to instill good values and norms in their students.A healthy competition of religious and secular ideas relating to education and indeed the good life, like other forms of competition, provides a decentralized route to social progress that is better than top-down control.

The contrasting view that the government should decide the moral and social orthodoxy of education rests on primacy of the state over the individual.  Under this view, the state has the responsibility of creating the proper citizens of tomorrow—those who have the right views about the environment, diversity, or any other cynosure of contemporary politics.

The roots of this view are not the classical liberal tradition that founded America, but in the more statist tradition of continental European philosophers.  As I observed in an essay a decade ago, it was Rousseau in Discourse on Political Economy who attacked private education, because it would simply transmit to children the “prejudices” that their fathers gained in the course of their private associations. Rousseau is brutally explicit about his preference for the state over the family in education: “It is a matter of greater importance to the state than to the fathers, for in the natural course of things, the father’s death soon robs him of the natural fruits of this education, but the homeland still feels its effects. The state remains and the family dies out.” For Rousseau, education by the state is necessary to guarantee the primacy of the general will: “If students are steeped in the laws of the state and the precepts of the general will . . . they will never will anything but what society wills.”

In contrast, classical liberals think that appropriate social norms are best discovered through a more spontaneous order. They have confidence that good values and social norms are more likely to arise as parents choose schools that have the best chance of making their children more valuable members of civil society.  It is true that the civil society with the best incentives for good conduct is that shaped by the limited government of the kind that our Constitution bequeathed us. Thus, vouchers would undoubtedly work best as part of more general movement of constitutional restoration.

Reader Discussion

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on December 12, 2016 at 07:06:08 am

In the last few years, I have soured on vouchers. I think the better option is educational savings accounts. This is where government sends the money into a special account that can only be used for educational purposes for the child. This would give parents a lot more flexibility in how to spend the educational money for their child. For instance, some parents will think that their child really needs a tutor, while others think that getting them into the best school is more important. Giving parents this choice is what is really important, and educational savings accounts do this while vouchers don’t as vouchers only pay for the school (not things like tutors). It’s also important that the money be used apparently over time for the child. Some families will put an emphasis on spending the money early on a really good high school, others will want to delay and roll those early savings into a better collage, both should be viable options for the family.

Long term I think that moving to an internet cloud based educational system is likely the more efficient use of educational money. Not everything can be taught in this manner, but for those things that can the cost of education per pupil is almost zero. This means that the money that would have been spent on these things can be redirected to focus on the areas that cannot effectively be taught online. But for internet based education to really be successful its going to be critically important to disaggregate the learning from the credentialing. Right now, by going to a four-year college, at the end of it you get a diploma and get to say you graduated from the school with a degree. But how much did you actually learn compared to just spending time in one of the seats and paying them money? The two are tied up together in a manner that is hard to tell. By splitting the two concepts up, we can more accurately measure learning (and signal that to employers), while at the same time opening up the possibility for alternative learning channels like online education.

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Devin Watkins
on December 12, 2016 at 07:08:41 am

That should have been the word "appropriately" (I wish we could edit our posts :( )

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Devin Watkins
on December 12, 2016 at 11:10:42 am

I find McGinnis’s arguments too boosterish.

First, it is unclear to me that parents will always act in a manner that best promotes a kid’s educational interests. First, parents are prone to the same errors as any other shopper. Plenty of people have bought educations of doubtful value at various institutions (Trump University, anyone?) Second, a parent’s interest does entirely coincide with society’s interest. A parent might prefer that a child attend the school that offers the largest kickbacks, for example. Thus, if society is going to foot the bill, then society should get to say what the money should be spent on.

That’s not inconsistent with vouchers or education savings plans. But it would mean creating some relevant means testing that goes beyond “education spending.” Vouchers have the nice feature that we might test kids to see how well they are progressing, and thus how well a school is doing at achieving the goals for which the moneys are being spent. An education savings plan might be trickier because there might well be no party to be held accountable if the spending fails to produce the desired results.

Second, it is unclear to me that education chosen for its benefits to a student/family is the same as education chosen to produce good citizens. A school that is very good at training bank robbers might well promote the interests of the individual, but perhaps not the interest of society. Thus, I’m not persuaded that market forces alone generate civic virtue.

But I find a parallel argument more compelling: The alternative to permitting private education is to have the state manage education—and the threat that poses for freedom seems pretty clear. Fortunately, there have always been practical limits on how much people can influence the next generation via education. Countervailing messages seep through. But I’d be more comfortable with education in private hands, subject only to the need to demonstrate that it is achieving whatever goals government prescribes as a condition of continuing to receive government financing.

In other words, government should get impose positive requirement, but not negative ones. If government wants kids to learn evolution, it should get to require kids to pass a test on evolution as a condition of the school getting paid. But government shouldn’t get to specify that the school NOT teach creationism, or Catholicism, or even racism. This is part of "policy unbundling."

(As an aside: Some pro-life people argue against government paying for non-abortion services provided by abortion providers, on the theory that funding for one purpose is inevitably funding for the other. If you embrace this theory, then presumably you’d have to reject my voucher theory: Paying a Catholic school to teach reading is, by this theory, inevitably paying the Catholic school to teach religion, and thus would be precluded.)

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nobody.really
on December 12, 2016 at 11:13:19 am

Good points, Watkins! If we truly embraced McGinnis’s arguments, presumably we’d simply give parents cash rather than vouchers.

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nobody.really
on December 12, 2016 at 12:12:47 pm

As for me, I would be happy to settle for the following:

Break the stranglehold that certain textbook publishers have on the texts used to teach our children.

Instead of, (or alongside of) school vouchers, let us have "textbook vouchers" and may a thousand blossoms bloom.

Also, let us dispense with "Schools" of Education and their credentialism. Many of us did quite well, having been instructed by former Infantry Soldiers from WWII / Korea who did not *suffer* from an Education Degree.

Heck, I nominate nobody.really for such a role!

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gabe
on December 12, 2016 at 12:51:44 pm

Well, I think things such as kickbacks needs to be prohibited in both a voucher or an educational savings account system. The parents cannot get any direct benefit or their interests won't be properly aligned with the child. How many parents do you know would send their children to "bank robber training" and even if they did, wouldn't you want the government to know who the trained bank robbers are?

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Devin Watkins
on December 22, 2016 at 15:15:41 pm

https://blackstoneinitiative.com/2013/06/27/the-good-in-common-core-ii/.

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David Linton

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.