The Problems with School Vouchers


Libertarians tend to push a school voucher solution to the problems of education but very few of them have bothered to think it through.  I think it’s because there’s a very fundamental problem in libertarian thinking.  What they’re really saying is “give me mine, fuck you.”  They’re only thinking of the individual in the equation, catering to what they consider the best and brightest and most  deserving of special treatment.  While I can sympathize with that view to a certain extent, we cannot limit ourselves to just the individual.  Humans  are a social species, there has to be a middle view which values both individual and societal responsibility.  That’s something you don’t really hear about very often.

Unfortunately, there are some very serious problems with the libertarian view.  I suppose it’s not too surprising, given their individual-centric position, but we have to deal with the whole of reality, not just the parts they want to acknowledge.  In education, we can’t just ignore the problems that are difficult to solve, we have to address them all.

The general idea is that we provide vouchers for all students so that parents can move their children to “better” schools and give them a better chance.  On paper, that sounds good but it ignores the very realities of modern schools.

There are parents who don’t care about the education of their children, as is very common in low-income ghetto areas, and are the least likely to move their kids to “better” schools.  Those are the children who most need to benefit from such a system, but least likely to actually do so.  Parents who don’t care raise children who don’t care.  Parents who were raised not to value education are going to raise their children not to value education.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Even if they did move their kids to a “better” school, they wouldn’t perform any better because the kids still don’t give a damn.  Their parents still aren’t making sure the kids are learning or doing their homework.  It isn’t a matter of better educators, you can do nothing if the students don’t want to learn.  What this really amounts to is educational segregation.  It gives the opportunity for people who already have an educational advantage, a home that values the concept of education and entirely ignores the rest to rot at the bottom of the educational pool.  Of course, those who do not get the benefit of an education are much more likely to end up in minimum wage dead-end jobs, in prison and on the public dole.  They’re also more likely to have unwanted pregnancies, adding even more to the welfare rolls.  By specifically ignoring these people, you’re just causing more of a social problem down the road.  As I said, it’s a vicious cycle and the libertarians would rather ignore it than deal with it because it’s not an easy problem to handle.

Besides, the math just doesn’t work.  Their plan essentially says that school competition is going to make bad schools better because they have to compete for students.  If there are 1000 kids in a district, just to keep the numbers simple, and 1000 spots for students at the schools, then there will be a mad rush for the “best” schools, but as that fills in, kids will have to settle for worse and worse schools all the way down.  Eventually, all of the students will fill all of the slots and no schools, no matter how bad, will close because they have all of their spaces filled.  So much for market forces!

So how do we actually solve the problem?  The parents who don’t care aren’t going to suddenly care because they now have options.  They’re not going to care because they’ve been raised not to care.  They have no impetus to care.  They lose nothing if their kids fail and gain nothing if their kids succeed.  Ultimately, they have no horse in the educational race.  They really do better for themselves, in our self-centered liberal society, by not giving a damn about their kids.  There’s no effort involved to just leave your kids to their own devices.  There’s no actual parenting involved.  Most of these kids don’t have parents either, they just have sperm and egg donors, for whom parenthood is just an unforeseen consequence of a night of passion.  This is a major problem in the ghettos, and I’ll get flack for saying so of course, but parenthood often isn’t an end in and of itself, but as a means to keep a man or to get money from the government.  I’m not saying there are no good parents in the hood, only that most of them don’t understand good parenting because they didn’t have it themselves.  Therefore, we need to gently nudge them in the right direction and, unfortunately, the only real way to do that is to hit them where they live, in their government subsidies.  We need to tie their benefits at least partially to the performance of their school-age children.  Some have suggested we give a bonus for kids that do well in school, I don’t think we should give a bonus, at least not solely, we ought to take money away for kids that are failing.  This is going to encourage parents to get on their kids to do their homework and learn.  It is in their financial best interest to do so.  I’m actually fine with a bonus for exemplary performance, maybe give them $50 extra every quarter for each A the student brings home.  Of course, this relies on the schools not just handing out A’s to help their students, it has to be honestly earned.  The parents ought to lose money for every class the student is failing and anyone who drops out of school and doesn’t get a GED ought to lose any government money the child is receiving at all.  You stay in school or you test out, just dropping out is entirely unacceptable and the parents become targets for the social workers to make sure that the kids are still being taken care of at an acceptable level.  It enforces responsibility on everyone involved and that’s one thing these people desperately need to learn is responsibility.  Some people, particularly bleeding heart liberals, might claim I’m being unnecessarily harsh on the poor.  No, I’m not.  First off, nobody ever said life was fair, but secondly, if you’re not pulling your own weight in society, then you need to change.  It isn’t society’s job to lower their standards, it’s their job to hold everyone accountable to the standards already in place.  Yeah, responsibility isn’t something liberals understand, or that a lot of libertarians give a damn about, but that’s why our society is so screwed up today.

And I know that none of this is easy.  Nothing worthwhile ever is.  Simply throwing vouchers at people and trying to segregate the educational pool isn’t going to solve any problems, it’s just going to widen the gulf.  It will make things worse, not better.  It will cost more money in the long run, not less.  It’s going to make a multi-tiered society, between the care and the care-nots. That’s really what a lot of the liberals want.  I thought a bit better of the libertarians.  I probably shouldn’t have.

5 thoughts on “The Problems with School Vouchers”

  1. Your suggestions here are interesting. I think that financial conservatives would see this as a good approach, but since the school voucher idea has been co-opted by the Religious Right to allow them to send their children to schools of their choice, at the expense of the taxpayer, I sense they would openly oppose your suggestions.

    Since our public education system is set up to operate at the local level, with a lot of input from the States, but almost none from the Federal government, would you suggest starting with contacting state legislators first, or maybe begin with the local school boards? I would imagine, since welfare is handled at state level, that that might be the better place to begin lobbying for enacting what you propose.

  2. Very interesting idea, as it would entail a mind set change that would be for the benefit of everyone involved. Granted the kids may not think so at that time, but kids also think jumping out of tress with plastic bags as parachutes is a good idea.
    My recent post Chance or Miracle?

    1. I don't really care what kids think, most kids wouldn't be in school at all if they were given a choice. I really don't even care what most parents think because most people are idiots. The whole point of having universal education is to improve society overall, whether anyone likes it or not. That means that people's wishful thinking and mythological beliefs are entirely irrelevant. We follow the best ideas about reality supported by evidence, not emotion. We teach people what is most likely to be true and will help them to make it in the real world.

  3. This would get teachers already in miserable working conditions harassed by parents for not giving thetir kids good grades. It would have to be tied in to standardized testing instead.

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