Why do you oppose vouchers?

When the Caledonia Education Association asked me about vouchers, I responded as follows.

  • Opposed to both. Public education is a pillar of democratic society. Everyone pays taxes to support the common good. You don’t get to withhold your taxes and opt out of police protection, fire protection, streets, highways, parks, government offices.
  • And you don’t get to withhold your tax dollars if you decide not to send your children to public schools.
  • To put it bluntly: you don’t get to suck money out of the public system to fund a rival system that is not required to serve the public.
  • When that happens, wealthier families do well, and poorer kids get stuck in schools that don’t have adequate resources. That’s a no-go.

That’s my position.

I am seeing this question discussed a lot right now, and even some of what I am seeing from people with whom I generally agree appears to me to be confused. So I have brainstormed a list of theses. Maybe I’ll need to revise some of them. This is a draft, a starting point. Conversation is welcome.

Here are my theses.

  1. Government exists to provide goods and services for the common good.
  2. People pay taxes to fund these government services.
  3. One of the services that government provides in the USA is free K–12 education for all children.
  4. Some of the services that government provides have direct and indirect beneficiaries.
  5. For example, rural electrification under FDR directly benefited rural residents but indirectly benefited the whole country.
  6. Some government services are services that we hope we won’t need but which we want to be thee if we need them.
  7. For example: defense, and fire protection.
  8. Highways and roads directly benefit drivers but indirectly benefit everyone. For example, highways benefit people who use products that are transported by trucks, which is everyone.
  9. People who choose to ride bicycles, helicopters, and planes but never automobiles do not get to take back the portion of their taxes that support highways and spend it on a bicycle or plane fares.
  10. Everyone rightly pays for public education because public education benefits everyone.
  11. For example, public education builds communities. Children of different races, religions, economic conditions, and social classes, and from families of various political leanings, learn together and have opportunity both to form lifelong friendships and also to learn how to relate to fellow citizens across those differences.
  12. Private education and home schooling tend to cluster children into religiously, socially, racially, and economically homogenous enclaves.
  13. So these alternatives to public education tend to fracture society rather than knit it together.
  14. When people pay taxes to support public education, they are not spending that money on their own children any more than people who pay taxes to support the fire department are paying for the protection of their own house.
  15. This is obvious when you consider that people who have no children, or whose children are grown, nevertheless pay taxes to support public education.
  16. Similarly, parents with twelve children pay no more than people who have one child.
  17. So the taxes that parents pay for education do not create a fund within the public treasure that is earmarked for their children. There is nothing there to pay back out to fund alternative schools.
  18. Governments could set up systems whereby funds are paid out from the public treasury to send children to private schools, but it is not in the public interest to do so. The public interest is best served by providing excellent public education.
  19. The quality of public education will deteriorate if school districts have to give up funding to provide payouts to individual families to fund private education.
  20. Some of the services that governments provide for the benefit of everyone are inherently unprofitable, if profit is measured in cash returned to investors.
  21. Education is one such service.
  22. If public schools are funded well and managed well, they will amply reward society for supporting them. But they will always be expensive, and rightly so.
  23. Privatization of education on a large scale would have to make education profitable in terms of return on investment for shareholders.
  24. Profitability, however, could only be achieved through cost-cutting schemes that would damage the quality of education and create injustices.
  25. For example, privatization would entail pressure to cut highly expensive services for children who need individualized learning plans and dedicated staff. But it is in the public interest to provide those services, and to do so in a way that integrates those children with others to the greatest extent possible.
  26. Since the greatest costs in education are for staffing, privatization would entail pressure to cut teachers’ salaries and benefits. But it is in the public interest to pay teachers well and to provide good benefits.
  27. Competition in general is a good way to spur efforts; but using public funding to support competitors against public education is not in the public interest. School districts can find better ways to harness competitive impulses: ways that will not undermine the schools but will support them.
  28. Privatization of public services is in general a feature of corrupt, oligarchic, plutocratic government. In healthy democracies, public institutions are strong. Public education is one of the most vital institutions in American democracy. There is good reason in US history to suspect the aims of politicians and political movements that set their sights on weakening or replacing the public schools.
  29. The notion that competition within unregulated markets is always the best and most efficient way is fallacious. Treating education as a commodity would vitiate it.
  30. Some parents will prefer to send their children to private or religious schools or to educate them at home. They are free to do so at their own expense. There is no more reason for the government to pay out funds for that than there is for the government to rebate the education-supporting taxes of people who have no children.
  31. Since vouchers and similar schemes would divert revenues away from public education, they are rightly understood as defunding public schools.
  32. Such schemes are partly analogous to proposals to defund the police. Both are rooted in perceptions of genuine failings in the institutions they target. Both are wrong in their proposal that reducing funding will have salutary effect.
  33. Because education is inherently unprofitable, it is all the more important to achieve economies of scale by encouraging as close as possible to universal participation. Encouraging students to leave our Cal schools for private schools will tend to worsen the economic viability of our schools.
  34. Football games and other athletic events, school concerts, school drama performances, etc. are events that draw our community together. Weakening Cal schools by encouraging private competition would weaken our community,

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