I believe in the free market. So why don’t I support vouchers for poor children to use at the private or parochial school of their choice? Isn’t my support for public education inconsistent with my libertarian bias? Perhaps. But I would argue that the…
I believe in the free market. So why don’t I support vouchers for poor children to use at the private or parochial school of their choice? Isn’t my support for public education inconsistent with my libertarian bias? Perhaps. But I would argue that the real inconsistency comes from voucher advocates professing compassion for the disadvantaged.
"Shouldn’t poor children have the same right to choose schools as rich kids do?" I was asked recently. The person posing the question is not supporting vouchers for medical care, nor is he advocating distribution of tax dollars to allow poor folks to choose their own lawyers. Quite the contrary–he opposes so-called "socialized medicine" and far from endorsing legal help for the poor, wants to eliminate the Legal Services Organization. But he is willing to expend millions of tax dollars to fund school vouchers, knowing that those dollars will come out of the budgets of our public schools.
Fairness is a two-edged sword. Is it "fair" to tax the folks in Cloverdale or Waverly, neither of which has sufficient population to support alternative schools for their youngsters, in order to make choices available to children in Indianapolis or Ft. Wayne? Is it "fair" to take tax dollars from Muslims and Episcopalians for Baptist or Jewish parochial schools? Is it "fair" to demand that schools accepting tax revenues march to the beat of the State Board of Education–and if not, is it "fair" to funnel tax dollars to schools that refuse to teach biology because their religion endorses creationism, or that substitute New Age philosophy for math?
In fact, it is inaccurate to suggest that the issue before us is school choice or market competition. We already have choices, although it is certainly true that poor people have fewer of them. Parents who wish to remove their children from the public schools may send them to private or parochial institutions, or may home school. We also have competition and a marketplace; ask any realtor whether the reputation of a school system matters when families are choosing a home. The Mayor of Indianapolis routinely points to the number of families moving to competing public school systems.
The purpose of public education is the creation of Americans–citizens who share a set of civic values and a common national identity. The transmission of national values may be less important in countries where the population is ethnically and culturally homogeneous; it is critically important in a country as diverse as ours. The public schools are one of the few remaining institutions where children from widely different backgrounds learn the principles of individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance, and the proper role of government in our representative democracy. If the public schools are broken (and the evidence for that is far less compelling than voucher advocates suggest) we must fix them.
As a libertarian, I would oppose laws requiring that children attend only government schools. As a taxpayer, however, I ought not be compelled to finance the Balkanization of America.