Education of the People by the People: The Case for School Vouchers A Students for Liberty Column
In a quiet suburb of Buffalo, there is a neighborhood that contains four school districts, with four separate administrative boards, to administer a population of 7,500 students. In the last decade, enrollment in the four districts’ schools has fallen by 20 percent, while spending has increased by 45 percent. In contrast, the public school system in Montgomery County, MD, has a system with one administrative board for 142,000 students, and is severely underfunded by the federal government. These disparities exist throughout the country, and have created major challenges regarding the future of American education.
These challenges have had a nationwide effect. America pours more money into education, both in total and on a per-student basis, than any other nation: last year, that spending was $7,743 per student, compared with $5,834 in England and $5,653 in Finland. In the meantime, test scores among American students have fallen steadily, and the US, when compared to its peers, is now considered to be just “average” in education. In the last worldwide test of performance from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), performed in 2011, the US ranked 25th out of 34 nations in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading; Finland, in the meantime, consistently ranks in the top 10. It is clear that the system we have now is inefficient. America’s students are being disadvantaged because they can’t compete on a global stage, and taxpayers are getting a poor return on their investment. The solution will not come in the form of more spending; rather, major reforms in how education is approached must be made. But how should policymakers go about reforming education?
In the classical liberal mindset, the answer is to treat education as anything else in society, and open it up to market forces. (By “classical liberal”, I refer to something closer to modern-day libertarians than the group we now call “liberals,” though there are important distinctions between the two, notably the degree to which libertarians and classical liberals will allow freedom to be curtailed for other considerations.) Individual schools could be either for-profit or non-profit institutions, but the task of organizing them should be taken out of the government’s hands. This does not mean that subsidies for tuition could not come from the government, much like certain healthcare benefits now do. The issue of whether or not to subsidize education I take up later, but the first step is to distinguish between the funding and the actual organization of the various schools in our country.
Why would an education system run entirely by private entities be more effective than our current public school system? For that, classical liberals would point to the argument, made famous by the Austrian economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, of the role of knowledge in society. Hayek believed that knowledge is more fully gathered and better utilized by individuals operating independently rather than through a centralized organization. Further, individuals know their particular circumstances in a way that no central entity can, and are therefore more capable of adapting themselves to changes.
Schools can be run more efficiently, the knowledge argument posits, when the organizations are left in the hands of those individuals who are directly involved with them. A vivid case in point is the dozens of mental and learning disabilities that have been discovered, everything from autism to dyslexia. Many require specialized care that requires specific allotment of resources. That allotment is inefficient when done by the federal and state governments located many miles away.
The inefficiency of the public school system is not just an empirical argument. For classical liberals, there is a moral element that further strengthens the claim. Any form of taxation is a curtailment of economic freedom; it is, in essence, a form of coercion. For the liberal, a certain type of general coercion – one that aims to keep individuals from coercing one another – is necessary. Other types of intrusion that provide significant benefits that could not be equally provided through free exchange are allowed, such as a military that protects from foreign invasion. It is, however, an unacceptable violation of freedom to tax people when they receive no benefit for it.
Granted that taxes for an inefficient public school system are an unfair infringement on freedom; but what, then, of taxing the people to provide vouchers to subsidize their children’s education in a school of their own choice? A classical liberal might argue that education falls under the category of a “public good,” and is within the limits of what a government can and should provide to its citizens. Adam Smith, a proclaimed father of capitalism, labeled education as such in his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations. What is meant by a “public good” is that it has a certain utility to it that benefits society at large, and that cannot be provided by market forces alone. Other examples include roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects; and, in the case of some liberal thinkers, hospitals as well.
I think, however, that government subsidies can be justified without resorting to the “public good” argument, which is difficult to prove in any empirically satisfying way. This can be done through a different argument of the 20th century’s most famous economist, Milton Friedman. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman employs a variation of the “veil of ignorance,” famously described by the moral theorist John Rawls. Rawls’ original argument is that when creating laws, one has to ignore all the abilities and circumstances affecting the individuals to which the law would apply, in an effort to pass the most unbiased (and, therefore, just) law.
In the same vein, Friedman presents an argument for supporting minimal taxation:
“One might, along these lines, justify one generation’s voting the tax schedule to be applied to an as yet unborn generation. Any such procedure would, I conjecture, yield income tax schedules much less highly graduated than present schedules are, at least on paper.”
In our case, everyone would be expected to want education subsidized, as long as each person had the freedom of choice where to send his or her child. Proponents of the “freedom of conscience” argument might rebut this in the same way classical liberals have rebutted the “veil of ignorance,” by simply saying that you cannot ignore reality in these cases. There really are some people who don’t have children, and it is an unsupportable violation of freedom to force them to pay for those who don’t.
These cases can be distinguished, however, in that it is somewhat likely that those who don’t have children may do so one day. This is different than other cases to which one might extend the “veil of ignorance,” because here there is a likelihood we will all end up in the same position. It may be true that if I was born into a family of oil magnates, I will never find myself being raised in an impoverished inner-city Baltimore neighborhood. On the other hand, it is likely that any person will have a child at some point during his or her life. For that reason alone, we could reasonably expect that each person would support a tax spent on equal vouchers for each child to defray the cost of education.
A final note about new technologies: it may soon become reality that education can be provided for little or no cost. A recent article in Forbes Magazine described one of the newest ventures to come out of Silicon Valley. There is an up-and-coming generation of entrepreneurs working on developing online schools that can reach and educate children across the socioeconomic divide for minimal cost. Such ventures have already raised millions of dollars in capital. If effective, they would allow us to make huge gains in educating the next generation without burdening the current one with taxes, which is a situation everyone would wholeheartedly support. Nevertheless, as it stands now, providing funding for school vouchers may best satisfy the twin concerns of justice and efficiency.
 Source: Buffalo News (http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121018/CITYANDREGION/121019129/1010)
 Source: University of Southern California (http://rossieronline.usc.edu/u-s-education-versus-the-world-infographic/)
 Source: MSNBC (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44642475/ns/nightly_news/#.ULq9qEJemfS)