Choosing choice

i-026f6d6ea259f9ee192086257a188475-p7181524.jpgOur dear friend Red State Rabble has managed to start a fight with the Cato Institute. Or at least with their Neal McCluskey (not, as I first thought, with Casey Luskin). Cato is defending their latest attempt to justify publicly funded vouchers for private schools, and RSR responds by rightly noting that such vouchers would cause creationist schools to “spring up like mushrooms after a summer shower.”

McCluskey says that vouchers would promote school choice, and that if people were choosing creationist schools now, those schools would already exist.

What he seems not to realize is that they already do. And the form they take is driven largely by the economic problems that would plague a school system dominated by vouchers.

As it stands, the “fringe groups” that McCluskey denies the existence of do indeed have “schools [which] already swamp the nation.” They are conservative Christian schools, as well as the $650 million home schooling industry. The former have been shown to underperform public schools. The latter is a phenomenon because the density of that fringe is too small to sustain a K-12 school system.

In Kansas, many school districts encompass multiple towns, with small, local elementary schools near population centers, larger middle schools at larger distances, and a few centralized high schools. The reason for that arrangement is simple economics. High schools need more equipment, which means that it’s more efficient to have more students in one facility, and it’s easier to get high schoolers to travel longer distances. At the low densities that prevail in most communities, including suburban America, it simply isn’t practical to have more than one or two high schools in an area, or middle schools, or elementary schools. That means that even if you shut down the public schools and let free enterprise take over, most people probably wouldn’t have a choice of schools.

This is why “with very few exceptions, we hear little or nothing about a threat from private education.” There is no threat. People who choose that path are free to do so, but most places couldn’t support more than one educational system anyway, and they’d rather work through the democratic process to change those schools. The problems arise when fringe groups try to take over public schools, as happened in Dover, in Kansas and elsewhere. They can’t maintain their own schools, so they try to hijack public schools.

This is the problem with treating voucher programs as “school choice.” The choice already exists (to the extent economically possible), and anti-government conservatives are annoyed that more people aren’t voting with their feet. So they advocate government intervention in the free market to push people towards the choice they prefer.

The goal of voucher advocates is to leave most parents with no choice but sectarian private education. Parents who can choose non-religious private education now already have the choice that McCluskey refers to, as well as the choice to let their children participate in public education. The choice vouchers would give parents is not among elite private schools, but between degraded public schools and private religious schools that have no educational advantage.

Which, of course, is the point. Reed Hundt tells this story from his time as FCC Chairman. While trying to drum up conservative support for a program to increase public schools’ access to computers and the Internet, he hit up conservative former Secretary of Education William Bennett. “He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.” The program passed nonetheless, and enjoys overwhelming support today.

This is but one part of Grover Norquist’s grand political strategy ? “starve the beast.” By degrading government services sufficiently, conservatives hope to make those services unpopular, making it easier to eliminate them, one by one. Schools are at the top of the list because they are popular and because teachers’ unions support Democrats. Killing off public schools reduces people’s contact with government and de-funds Democratic activists.

I’m all for the principle that “that government is best which governs least.” But the idea that the best government governs not at all is just absurd. One critical function of government is to internalize externalities, and to help circumvent collective action problems. Public education does both.

A while back, Toyota decided to build a plant in Canada, rather than Alabama, for two reasons. First, the cost of healthcare in Canada would be cheaper (because universal healthcare addresses that collective action problem), and because the Canadian workers could read written instructions. Factories in Alabama apparently have to use illustrations.

Clearly, Toyota could have decided to build and fund great local schools in Alabama, and build their factory in a decade after the new schools had a chance to produce a viable workforce. Undoubtedly, some of those locally educated smarties would decide to work in the factory. But lots of them would prefer to take their great education where that background would be better rewarded, like Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Inequities in educational quality would allow other areas to get a free ride from Toyota’s hypothetical largesse in Alabama.

Public schooling evens out educational quality, and encourages communities to improve education in order to attract jobs and create new ones. That benefits everyone in every community. If only people or communities who think they needed good schools pay for them, the quality of everyone’s education declines. The proof is in the pudding.

This isn’t to say that the education system we have is perfect. But the idea that dividing our efforts and removing safeguards that exist to guarantee everyone an education is just foolish. People who have a choice of schools will always have one. There is no crisis there. The crisis is for people who need an education, but couldn’t afford a private one. And vouchers won’t solve that problem.


  1. #1 df
    January 28, 2007

    Thanks for the great post. But is there some text missing at the end of the second to last paragraph?

  2. #2 druidbros
    January 29, 2007

    Have you ever noticed how the Republicans want to privitize EVERYTHING? Social Security, school vouchers, Blackwell security in Iraq, and the new health care tax breaks.Its because they want us to believe that it allows for more personal choices and is better for us. The opposite is true. There are some things which can be better because the government is doing it. But because Republicans want a smaller government they push for the things which would benefit the rich (which they are a part of).

  3. #3 Greg
    January 29, 2007

    Druidbros, your neighbourhood republican voter or congresscritter may not be very bright. However, people who craft the disinformation to deceive them are not dummies.

    You have it backwards. The Republicans want smaller government in order to starve public institutions.

    Excellent essay, Josh!

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