Saturday, February 05, 2005

Intelligent dissent on education vouchers

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:20 AM |  

[Note: This piece is a little long, as late night, can't sleep pieces tend to be. Nonethelss, I hope you find it worth your time. -- CW]

Although the politically-motivated rants about Education Access Grant legislation must be addressed by those of us who see the Hann/Buesgens legislation as a good first step in achieving the freedom of educational choice for all Minnesota families, there is also some intelligent dissent on vouchers that ought to be confronted and considered. That is the libertarian objections to vouchers as yet another income redistribution program.

Laurence M. Vance, an adjunct instructor in accounting and economics at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, FL., writing for the Ludvig Von Mises Institute expresses this view in a review of the book Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle over School Choice by Clint Bolick. (A funny hat tip to King Banaian for sending me the review.)

Bolick is the author of several previous books on civil rights, and is the vice president and national director of state chapters at the Institute for Justice. He also worked for the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

Vance acknowledges that Bolick is not defending vouchers per se, but nonetheless, he argues, Bolick’s book has that effect. He characterizes Bolick as a “pragmatic libertarian” that envisions vouchers as both improving public schools by holding them more accountable and helping private schools without bringing increased government regulations. Vance crystallizes the debate thusly --
Bolick correctly describes the dismal condition of the public school system, but fails to offer the correct solution: the complete separation of school from state. The Gordian Knot stays uncut. He insists that "it is nothing less than criminal to fail to consider private options in a rescue mission" for children in failing public schools. But is it any less criminal to compel a citizen to pay for the education of someone else's children?

Bolick should have read Ludwig von Mises: "There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private association and institutions."
Although I might bristle if someone referred to me as a “pragmatic libertarian,” I must admit that in this debate I come down on the side of Mr. Bolick. My heart lies with Vance -- in a utopian world there is no role for government in education -- but as a member of the big “L” Libertarian Party some half dozen years ago, I came to understand liberty and utopias are conflicting concepts. A utopia -- even a libertarian utopia -- can never allow the imperfection of human action permitted by liberty, and liberty will never yield the perfection demanded in a utopia.

When it comes to school choice, I favor former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools and school choice advocate Howard Fuller’s “Harriet Tubman” metaphor. Harriett Tubman worked hard for the abolition of slavery, but while that was her “day job,” by night she ran a station on the underground railroad and smuggled fugitive slaves to free states in the North. Fuller’s “Harriet Tubman” metaphor --

“I’d like all kids to have school choice, but until that day arrives, I’m going to rescue as many kids as I can, one child at a time.”
So, while I respect Vance’s view -- unlike the distaste I have for politically-motivated objections to vouchers (see update) -- I disagree with him on three key points.

First, I see a role for government-run schools in a true “public education” system. Second, I believe that true “public” education is a definable public good and justifies responsible expenditure of tax dollars. Third, government funding of education is not the same as government control of educational content.

I’ve written extensively in other places on the distinction between “public education” that is education in the public interest and the system that delivers the knowledge and skills that define that education. The latter is not limited to the present concept of “public” schools, but also ought to include educational options like charter schools, private schools, religious schools, cyber schools and myriad other choices some which have yet to be conceived.

Government-run schools have a role in that system. At worst, that role is as a safety net for children who fall through the cracks of free-market education. In any free-market, there is a lag time between a change in the market that disturbs its equilibrium and restoration of market equilibrium. In purely economic situations, that causes inconvenience to some caught in the change, but through individual initiative they can weather the change and survive and prosper.

Free-market education is no different in principle, but significantly different in affect. The “victims” (for lack of a better word) of change are children, and any downtime in a child’s educational career is significant (something today’s educators treat cavalierly when absent school choice they propose more money and three to five year plans to “fix” failing government schools). An effective government school system provides safe harbor for such children -- at worst.

At best, there is no reason why government schools, operating in an environment of competition, cannot provide alternative service not offered by private sector schools. Simply by its existence, government has many competitive advantages that it might exploit to provide quality education once -- through school choice and the development of private alternatives -- it is freed of having to be all things to all children.

The second point I disagree with Mr. Vance on is the question of whether or not education is a public good justifying responsible spending of tax dollars.

Here, I accept the reasoning of Charles Murray’s contention that “pubic good” is not merely a loosely defined term that can mean whatever someone in power wants to say is good for the public, but that the term, legally and philosophically, has some specific meaning. Murray provides some specific criteria.

For an action to be a “public good” it must have the following characteristics.

A public good cannot be provided selectively. National defense is an example. The government doesn’t provide defense everywhere except Minneapolis. Some environmental issues meet this test.

A public good can be consumed by one person without diminishing its availability to others. Street lights and breathing clean outdoor air are Murray’s examples. This characteristic can be carried to an extreme -- for example, consider Spaghetti Junction at 5:05 PM.

A public good occurs when individual benefit can not easily be charged for. Roads are the classic example. Staunch libertarians argue that all road building ought to be privatized, but the fact is such a system, especially given the infrastructure we have today, is more effectively managed centrally.

A public good occurs when individuals are called upon to do things that benefit the whole community. This is where education becomes a public good. As Murray explains --

"A democracy cannot function without an educated electorate. The cost of providing an educated electorate should be spread over all those who benefit, which means virtually everyone who lives in a democracy. It is not feasible, however, to administer a system in which individual nonparents reimburse individual parents for part of the cost of educating their children. This is a classical liberal argument for treating education as a public good -- an argument, I should add, from which many libertarians dissent.”
Mr. Vance would be one of those libertarians. I am not.

The third point on which I disagree with Mr. Vance is over what I conceive is his narrow interpretation of the Von Mises quote repeated here.

"There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private association and institutions."
I have shown why I think education is a “public good” and therefore justifies public funds. I disagree that public funding necessarily means government must be involved in “the rearing and instruction of youth.”

If I might here be allowed to speculate on what Mr. Vance might say, he would likely remind me that “Power Corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and he would probably say I was naïve to believe that government could ever fund without imposing restrictions. Indeed the Hann/Buesgens legislation that is sparking the debate is carefully crafted with “accountability” features. The worry over government intervention in private education has many private educators concerned about participating in a voucher program.

I really have no counter argument to this concern other than the cliché “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” and recognizing Vance’s objection is the first step in preventing it from occurring. The second step is informed action.

Vance's libertarian objections to vouchers in his review and his claim that “pragmatic libertarainism” is helping support the leviathan government we have today is criticism I take seriously --
“Vouchers, like Social Security privatization and the Iraq war, amount to another attempt to impose market ends by socialist means--a reversal of the social democratic habit of old in which socialism was attempted through market means. But like any mixed economy scheme, whether the statism applies to the means or the ends, the result is bad for public finance, bad for economic productivity, and bad for the practice of liberty.”
-- but having been there and done that in my big “L” Libertarian Party days, I believe that to advocate that degree of radicalism is the equivalent of a starvation diet, rather than a change in eating habits, as a means of permanent weight loss. To strategically implement a Vance-like agenda, adopt the knee-jerk ideological strategy of modern progressives, is to abandon the field to them.

Today, conservative/libertarians have the opportunity to set and control the agenda. In that environment, unlike when liberals controlled the agenda, compromise means a move to the right. Conservative/libertarians should take advantage of the opportunity. The Education Access legislation is a good step in the right direction.