Gloomy Outlook for Vouchers

The November 24, 2007, edition of World Magazine included a lead editorial by Joel Belz: Gloomy outlook for vouchers. In it, Mr. Belz (who has ties to Cono Christian Boarding School in Iowa) discussed the defeat of a school voucher measure in Utah.

Vouchers allow parents to offset the cost of some non-public education by diverting money that would have followed a student to a public school to an alternative school. The argument goes something like this: “My taxes pay for public education, but I have little choice in how my children are educated. By making it financially easier for me to choose an alternate school, then I’ll have more choice about how my tax dollars are spent. Plus, the competition will improve those institutions that want to provide that education option.” This is, of course, an over-simplification, but perhaps a reasonable introduction.

Unfortunately, the first leg of this argument (“I should get to decide how my school supporting tax dollars are spent on my children”) isn’t very sturdy. The taxes that I pay do not pay for my children’s education or for your children’s education. The tax dollars I pay provide public education for all students, based on the premise that an educated populace is advantageous to society. A portion of my taxes provides for the education of the populace, whether I am childless or whether I have a dozen children. In fact, speaking in generalities, the family with 10 children is paying much less per child in taxes than the family with 1 child, yet receiving 10 times the amount of educational services. Shouldn’t the family with 1 child pay less than the family with 10 children? Why is this fair? If it is fair, it is only because of the premise that an educated populace is financially and socially an advantage to the entire society. That is, even if I do not have any children, I will benefit from the fact that each generation is educated. Since I will benefit, it is fair to tax me for it. Thus, the portion of my taxes that provides for public education is entirely independent of whether or how many children I have. (The same argument applies to public works, such as the highway system. I benefit from the highway system even if I never personally drive on it.)

Mr. Belz falls into this trap when he writes:

So long as the public school system can force everyone who doesn’t want its product to pay twice to send their kids to school, their system will have an enormous advantage.

My children have not attended public school. That was my choice. However, I didn’t “pay twice to send them to school.” I just didn’t take advantage of the “free” education provided by your tax dollars and mine. Was providing education for my children expensive. Absolutely. But I don’t consider that I paid twice.

The second argument in support of vouchers — that vouchers will help provide more educational choices, which will in turn give incentive for all providers to improve — is a much more interesting (and viable) argument. Given the premise that an educated populace is good for society, then our goal should be to get the best educational system possible for our financial investment. It is a well-known principle that competition either drives down prices or improves quality (or some combination of both). Why not apply this to education?

And thus, we arrive at Joel Belz’ article. The state of Utah proposed a voucher program, which was defeated by vote of the citizens. Some of the details of the voucher proposal:

The Utah proposal had actually gone out of its way to make the public-school establishment happy. Where Utah had been spending an average of about $7,500 per student throughout its system, the new program would have provided an average voucher of $2,000 per student for families with children headed for non-public schools — with the difference of $5,500 still going to the public schools even though they wouldn’t have to provide any services at all for such a generous payment. In other words, the more students enrolling in non-public schools, the better off the public system would be!

Here’s the problem. If the public school is spending $7,500 per student, and a student opts out into a non-public school provider, why should the public school continue to receive any of that money, much less $5,500? That cripples the competition. Instead of providing an incentive for the public school to meet the demands of its consumers, the public school actually has a financial incentive to avoid improvement.

Thus, this voucher proposal didn’t do what we want a voucher program to do: foster competition. Therefore, as a pro-choice voter (in regards to education, that is), I wouldn’t have supported this proposal either. While that may be gloomy news for voucher supporters, it might also be a hint that the voucher proposal didn’t go far enough.

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