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Home » News & Analysis » Commentary » Are Federal School Vouchers a Bad Idea? (Andrew Coulson, with response from Robert Teegarden)

Are Federal School Vouchers a Bad Idea? (Andrew Coulson, with response from Robert Teegarden)

The Alliance responds to Andrew Coulson.

Why Federal School Vouchers Are a Bad Idea (Coulson)

President Bush wants to help kids in failing public schools. That’s good. He wants to do it by giving them federal vouchers to attend private schools. That’s bad.

The president is right to favor parental choice and competition between schools. Educational freedom has a long and illustrious history reaching all the way back to ancient Athens – and the Athenians gave us democracy (albeit in a crude form) and most of Western culture.

That’s not too shabby when you consider that the legacy of ancient Sparta, pioneer of state-run schooling, is, uh… a name for high-school football teams.

But if you study the subsequent 25 centuries of education history, you are driven to an inescapable conclusion: government funding of private schools brings with it government control – and the higher the level of government involved, the more serious the problem.

The Netherlands is a case in point. Back in 1917, the Dutch were at each others’ political throats over the content of their government schools. Different religious and cultural factions couldn’t agree on the official curriculum (sound familiar?).

Rather than spilling blood, they came up with a kinder, gentler idea: they’d fund any sort of school for which there was a demonstrable public demand. Catholics could get Catholic schools, Calvinists, Calvinist schools, and so on. It worked like a charm. Far from Balkanizing the public, as modern school choice critics fear, educational freedom and diversity dissipated the conflict that government schooling had caused.

So far so good. But with government funding came government control. Today, the Dutch government defines teacher accreditation requirements, fixes salary scales, curtails the firing of teachers, sets the core curriculum, says how much will be spent, makes it illegal to charge tuition over the voucher amount, and prohibits profit-making in voucher schools. In other words, Dutch “independent” voucher schools have lost their independence.

Indeed, like Puritans fleeing England’s established Church, I know of several Dutch teachers who came to America to escape the suffocating pall of government intervention in their country’s voucher schools.

There are ways to mitigate this regulatory encroachment.

Acting at the state rather than the national level, for instance, can harness the “laboratory” of federalism. States that went too far in curtailing the autonomy of voucher schools would likely drive away parents and businesses, engendering an economic backlash that would discourage regulatory excesses. The lack of this mitigating factor at the national level is a key reason for opposing the president’s federal voucher proposal.

An even better solution to the regulatory problem is to avoid using government money entirely. There are two driving forces behind the public’s desire to regulate government-funded schools: opposition to paying for instruction that violates our convictions, and a desire for accountability. State education tax credits address both concerns more effectively than either vouchers or the existing government monopoly.

America is in a perpetual culture war over the public school curriculum. Think “intelligent design,” school prayer, sex education, textbook selection, etc. The Dutch voucher program eliminated much – but not all – of that conflict. At present, there is discomfort in some quarters of the generally liberal population over certain very conservative Islamic voucher schools – especially in the wake of the religiously-motivated murder of film director Theo van Gogh. But if access to Islamic voucher schools is curtailed, law-abiding Dutch Muslims will suffer. It’s a lose-lose situation that is inherent in the government funding of education.

Tax credits avoid this zero-sum game. A complete education tax credit program has two parts: a credit for parents to use against their own expenses, and a credit for individuals and businesses who donate to private Scholarship-Granting Organizations (SGOs). The first part helps middle-income families pay for their own children’s schooling, and the second part ensures that low-income families also have the resources they need to participate in the education marketplace.

Under this system, no one is compelled to fund anything to which they might object. The personal credits involve people spending their own money on themselves, and the donation credits allow taxpayers to choose the SGO that receives their donations. No government money is used.

Taxpayer accountability is also far greater under tax credits than either vouchers or government schooling. If you don’t like the way a particular SGO is allocating your money, you can redirect your donations elsewhere. Try doing that with your tax payments.

So while the president is right to favor greater choice for parents and greater autonomy for educators, there are better ways to achieve those goals than a dangerous expansion of federal intervention in our schools. Let’s leave educational authority to the states and the people – to whom the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment rightfully reserve it.

Andrew Coulson is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.  This article originally appeared on Cato’s website.  

Andrew Coulson is Right… but Not Right Enough (Teegarden)

Andrew Coulson tells us that helping kids is good.  Favoring parental choice is good.  Competition among/between schools is good.  We should be careful what we pray for.  True.  We must eschew government control of private education.  All true.  All good.  But it’s not good enough.

Coulson reminds us oh so well that when one goes looking for a gift horse, often he or she winds up with a Trojan horse.  True.  He concludes that the Trojan horse today is named “Voucher” and is full of federal regulators ready to spring their lethal trap.

He concludes that tax credits for education and tax credits for scholarship donations (maybe he was referring to the Arizona model) are the only way to go.  He states that federal vouchers for schooling and federal funding of private schools are the same thing, that vouchers are a bad idea. 

Coulson is prescient to remind us that with the shekels come the shackles in dealing with the government… sometimes.  But the problem is this: kids are not shackled at the moment by some outside, foreign force and need the intervention and protection of the government to free them from restraint; they are enslaved by the very same state governments and unions; they are enslaved to schooling, conditions, and environments that said governments and unions would not (and do not) tolerate for themselves, let alone their own children.  Parents are looking for a choice. When one of three high school students doesn’t make it to 12th grade graduation, something is tragically wrong!  Parents are looking to the federal government for help… now.

Isn’t this exactly, though, what Coulson calls “the laboratory of federalism? “ The states have had their chance.  The record of outputs from the nation’s schools since the Sirens’ call in 1983 (“A Nation at Risk”) has been, at best, dismal.   The lack of any mitigating factor at the state level in its exercise of coercion in schooling is exactly why parents look with welcome relief to almost anything that would free their children from the cycles of poverty, ignorance and violence that are so prevalent in America’s urban areas.  They’re looking to this laboratory of federalism for relief… now.

I can imagine Homer coming to this conclusion, “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) comes along and requires performance standards and accountability.  The NCLB is one of those mitigating factors to compensate for states’ failures in schooling.  But this is one gift horse into whose mouth you really should look, for you’ll find that it, to date, has no teeth.  Districts fail to consult, fail to include, fail to teach.  What recourse does a parent have?  A child attends failing schools for 2nd and 3rd grade.  What can they do?

The same is true of education in general.  Coulson notes that there are “two driving forces behind the public’s desire to regulate government-funded schools: opposition to paying for instruction that violates (our) convictions, and a desire for accountability.”  There are parents in state schools right now who believe that they have their children in and are paying taxes for schools that teach in violation of their own conviction; these parents argue that the state government schools are not in the least accountable to them, the parents.   Where do they turn?  What do you say to the student at age 18, diploma in hand, who can’t read, can’t write and can’t get meaningful employment?  We’re not all lucky enough to have Ulysses for a friend.

How do we then navigate among the rocky shoals of government regulation, government coercion or government tyranny?

Employers across the country know the problem. They know very well.  There’s an epic tragedy being played today on the stages of America’s government schools, tragic because the protagonists don’t wish to see the answer right before them: choice—that amazingly Western notion that came from the shores of Athens and Sparta.  They keep listening to the Sirens’ call to the glamour of greed.  Brett Pawlowski, in his recent article “Beyond the Profit Motive“, argues why this is so:

“They [business leaders] see a system [state schools] with some of the greatest inputs and lowest outputs in the world, as seen in global rankings provided by groups such as TIMSS and OECD.  They see no accountability and no objective reporting (at least prior to NCLB).  They see deceptive reporting by the states on key metrics such as dropout rates and proficiency scores.  They see a disregard for rigorous research, as evidenced by recent reporting by NCTQ.”

This is where Coulson commits the tragic error.  He concludes that vouchers are wrong because they always come with federal regulation.  He suggests tax credits as a solution, however, because they never have any government regulation.  The once great Greek, Aristotle, would argue “No.”  Truth doesn’t lie in extremis. Truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Not all voucher programs come with excessive regulation and a program without some regulation is meaningless license.  Neither extreme is sound.  Cultures, by their nature, suggests some regulation, some structure.  Caveat emptor

But the governments must have done it right, at least once.  Didn’t they?  How about the G.I. Bill?  How about Pell grants to attend college?  How about Early Childhood Education grants?  I’m told that some of the G.I. Bill grants were redeemed at seminaries!  And here I thought that the Constitution was written before 1944!

Tax credits are good. But they’re not good enough.  Unless they’re refundable, they will not serve the vast majority of folks who seek relief from this duress.  If the citizen has no tax liability because of poverty, how does she or he access the opportunities that tax credits promise?  The tax credit and SGO (scholarship granting organization) is a convenient concession to the poor, but it still puts a whole class of people in jeopardy because the funding streams for their children are based on the largesse of yet others; it’s wonderful and good, and speaks of good hearts, but it is regressive by its very nature.

Another thing to consider is that because government policies are so skewed toward public schools, we will always have a huge majority of kids in public schools unless we have vouchers.  And because states most in need of choice have powerful unions that control the legislatures, we will never have school choice without vouchers.  The president’s opportunity scholarships proposal is very lightly regulated and participation is voluntary—by the communities, schools, and families.  In other words, they’re given a choice.

I would turn, like Coulson, to the 10th Amendment to the Federal Constitution in that often overlooked last phrase:

10th Amendment:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

To the people… Let’s take the funding past the bureaucracy, past the states.  Let’s direct the funding from the people, to the people, for the people.  The subject of schooling is not the curriculum, the texts, even the teachers; it’s not the boards, bonds or books.  It’s the student.

Let’s attach a little backpack to the shoulders of every K-12 student in America.  “Take this pack to the school of your choice; use it at home if you will.”  Money going to students is different from money going for institutions.  The former has the insulation of Zelman and the promise of Pierce.  And like the famed battles for Troy, the “curriculum culture wars” in America will all but cease, for parents will then actually be able to choose a school consistent with their values, or build one.

Robert Teegarden is director of state projects for the Alliance for School Choice. 


  1. Maryjane Brady says:

    Why are we not hearing more of this debate in the public arena? Why doesn’t Fox News or the radio talk shows doing this debate? When is this issue going to work its way up to the top of the issue list?

  2. D Liotta says:

    My child attended a school that was not failing by the No Child Left Behind standards and yet he was being left behind. He is a perfect example of why we MUST have vouchers. Going into 6th grade he was reading at a 2.8 grade level and yet had been denied reading help through 5 years of testing by the district. The only special education offer that was made was for math class. I felt that math help wasn’t going to make an impact on his education if he couldn’t read. I was forced to take matters into my own hands and found a private school for him with a ratio of 1 teacher to 3 students with a self paced program. I am happy to report that after 10 months my child is reading close to grade level and is learning math and social studies at about 6 months behind his grade level. Had I not intervened he would still be failing in the public school system. All this of course comes with a HIGH price tag. I have been spending 575.00 per month for my child’s education. My family has had to make great sacrifices to afford the cost of this education that the state of Arizona should be providing. If my child were enrolled in the public school the state would be spending over 7,ooo. per year for his education. Why shouldn’t that money be available to my family to educate my child when the school district was unwilling to do their job!!!!!

    PS My child is neither a minority student nor low income. It is not just poor and minority students that will benefit from school choice, it is ANY CHILD who learns differently.

  3. This issue of a federal voucher program creates quite possibly one of the most difficult issues for me personally. In general I abhor more federal government intervention in our lives, including the education of our children. On the other hand Mr. Teegarden is correct, the many problems at the state and local level affecting school choice are many and quite significant.

    While I generally like the idea of tax credits, the only way such credits would work for those most in need of vouchers is if they were refundable, a hugely expensive proposition–just ask any tax law lobbyist.

    The problem with a federal voucher program, federally administered is the general lack of flexibility inherent in any federal system. In order to account for the vast range of state and local differences and needs, the federal law would have to be one of two things–overly rigid or overly complex. A rigd law would ties the hands of local activists and local school boards who are trying to do right by their students. Overly complex laws have so many exceptions that they always lead to more confusion about the law and the regulations that must follow.

    A better idea would be to consider doing what the federal government already does–tie some amount or precentage of Title I funds to certain desired behavior. Congress could easily say that Title I funds will not be distributed unless there is a choice law containing certain characteristics and features in place in teh state by a date certain.

    What is the functional difference between my proposal and that currently espoused. First and foremost is that the federal law would be a legal floor, meaning that states could do more. Second, states could opt out of federal funding (as some are already considering regarding the NCLB restrictions).

    Third, and finally, a federal voucher law is all but guaranteed to generate a court challenge. Why complicate matters with the potential of an activity that Congress is constitutionally not impowered to undertake. Tying Title I funds with a choice law requirement generally gets around the problem. That is not to say that there won’t be court challenges, they just won’t have the constitutional leg to stand on.

    Granted this matter is quite complex, but I think it best to shy away from a federal voucher law and work to bolster state choice laws. Congress could use a carrot and stick approach of Title I rather than the blunt force of a federal law.

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