I see a lot of people, typically libertarians and religious kooks, who are pushing for a school voucher system. For the libertarians, it’s part of their overriding irrational hatred of all things government and for the religious, it’s usually part of their desire to syphon off money and students from the secularly-controlled public school system. In both cases, I find their arguments entirely irrational.
From the libertarian side, the argument goes something like this: People deserve to put their children in the best schools, but because part of their taxes are already going to fund public schools, they ought to get that money back so they can pay for private schools if they so desire. For the religious, the motive is clear, they want more money and more suckers to indoctrinate. However, neither really understand the issues associated with modern education and frankly, neither really care either.
It’s important not just to provide a good education to some people, but to all people and that’s not what voucher advocates promote. They don’t care about the poor or the disinterested, they’re happy to throw them under a bus, they only care about their own kids. But it’s important for future society to have a well-educated and rational population, that’s why we have universal education, not because people are self-centered and only give a damn about their own kids. That’s why the public education system was set up in the first place, so that not only the wealthy could educate their children, but so all children everywhere would get at least a basic education.
I’ll be the first one to admit that the public education system has a lot of problems that need to be addressed, but carving it up and defunding it (which some libertarians want to do entirely) is not the answer. All they care about are the students and parents who are actively involved in education. There are plenty of parents and students who just don’t care and those are a serious challenge, but just throwing them out into the cold or letting them languish in the educational ghettos simply isn’t the answer. Those students who do not get an education today become the financial anchors around our necks tomorrow.
According to libertarians, there will be a fight for all students at all levels and that the free market will magically provide. This is nonsense. At higher levels, certainly you will get a fair bit of competition. Parents will get the amount they pay out of their property taxes that currently go for public schools and they can go to any private school they like with those funds. Schools will almost certainly just raise their rates to take these extra funds into account. A school that charged, say, $10,000 a year will look at parents who now have an extra $5000 a year to spend and just make the school cost $15,000 a year. They will continue to be just as selective, allowing only those students who are not troublemakers, who do not do poorly in the classroom and who get good grades in, thus making them look more attractive to parents who are looking for a “good educational environment”, albeit one that has carefully managed their statistics. But what of poor parents? They will take their much lower voucher amount to private schools and, being unable to add anything to it, will have fewer choices. These low-end schools will now have not only less money to work with but a higher percentage of problem children to deal with. You will find a higher incidence of drug abuse, teen mothers, criminal behavior, gang violence and the entirely disinterested and very little money to make the system work. In essence, it’s an educational death sentence for the low end students because schools will almost certainly simply close their doors rather than deal with more headaches and less money and as I said, the people who carry the biggest cost to society will suddenly be in even worse straits than they are currently and not only will society spend more on education than ever before, we’ll still be liable for the same level of social dysfunction, if not more, than we already have. This doesn’t fix education, it just plays the typical libertarian game of “we got ours, fuck you.”
This doesn’t even address the obvious problem with private schools having the freedom to teach all manner of irrational religious nonsense and local superstition because parents are neither sophisticated nor educated themselves to understand the real world around them. It goes exactly the wrong way for school standardization that I’ve argued so strenuously for in the past. We need more standards, not less. We need a common central curriculum nationwide, not a bunch of crazy cults going willy-nilly around whatever bizarre religious books they follow. As a secular educational system, we can do away with that nonsense. As a collective of private schools with no controls, it’s back to the educational dark ages. That is certainly going the wrong way.
American education and schools have a lot of problems to be sure and they are a political hot potato that nobody wants to address because liberals want control over how people think and the religious want control over what people believe and are taught. Neither side want what’s best for American children, which is teaching them how to think and how to rationally evaluate the real world. The idea of a rationally educated public terrifies both sides to no end. This is a Gordian Knot that will take an interested populace a lot time to finally cut apart, but school vouchers, at least as currently suggested, will not solve the problem, it will only make it worse.