Friday, January 06, 2006

School Vouchers

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that one of Florida's school voucher systems is unconstitutional. The liberal press cheers this decision; conservatives are determined to see it reversed.

As is typical, I have no interest in the constitutionality of Florida's law. My interest is in whether vouchers represents good or bad policy, and whether the arguments used on both sides of the debate are good or bad arguments.

In the course of this post, I want to look at three considerations relevant to school vouchers.

Vouchers Mix Church and State

Imagine a situation in which a state's Secretary of Education needs a new personal assistant. There are a number of skilled applicants for the position. One of these applicants is Steve. He has good computer skills, is well organized, and an efficient planner.

However, Steve is known to be a devout Seventh Day Adventist. During his interview he revealed that he will be tithing 10% of his salary to his church.

Would it be the case that hiring Steve for the position would count as a wrongful endorsement of religion?

Of course not.

In fact, it would be wrong for the state to refuse to hire Steve because he gives a portion of his salary to his church. That is not a legitimate state concern. As long as Steve does the job that he is being paid to do -- as long as he provides the Secretary of Education with high-quality assistance -- this is all that matters.

I look at school vouchers the same way. The people, through their government, have an interest in a well-educated population. A high quality education not only benefits the person being educated, it benefits everybody in society. We are all better off to the degree that our neighborhoods are filled with well-educated people capable of making informed, intelligent decisions. We all suffer to the degree that we are surrounded by poorly educated people incapable of making informed and intelligent decisions.

The state's interest is in producing educated citizens. An educated citizen is worth a certain amount of state funds. When we pay somebody who promises to deliver to the state well educated citizens, it does not matter if those we pay then contribute a portion of their money to some religious practice. What matters is that the state get the educated citizens that it has paid for. This is true in the same way that it does not matter what Steve does with his money. All that matters is whether he does the job he is being paid for.

If the state can increase the quality of its educated citizens by giving parents vouchers that the parents then use to enroll their children in private schools, then it should not matter that the parents or the schools are religious in nature. If they produce an educated citizen, then they are giving the state what the state is paying for.

The Quality of Education

Another objection raised to the voucher system is that, while those who take advantage of vouchers can get a better education, those who are left behind will get a worse education as a result. Vouchers, these critics claim, are used by those who seek to abandon the public education system rather than reform it.

Eliminating Options

The idea here is that if we take away peoples' options, we can force their attention onto the things that we want them to pay attention to. It is the same type of argument used against teaching teenagers about birth control and how to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted disease (because some may use this option and abandon abstinence). The argument has been used against putting airbags in cars (because drivers without airbags will be more cautious) or refusing to give parachutes to pilots (because the government wanted the pilot to focus on bringing the airplane back).

However, we may assume that if people are actually interested in taking a particular option (e.g., using school vouchers, using condoms, buying a car with air bags, or abandoning a damaged airplane) it is the better option.

There are grounds for a strong presumption that prohibiting people from using their best judgment is not an effective way to improve the quality of life in general. We cannot make our society better off by forcing people to give up what, in their best judgment, is the better option and forcing them into worse options. It is arrogant at best to assert that our judgment is better than those whose options we seek to limit.

Psychological Abandonment

A related concern seems to be that those who take their children out of public schools will no longer be concerned with how well those schools function. They will abandon public schools and those who are stuck there to whatever fate awaits them.

At its root, this argument depends on the premise that a person whose child is not in the public school system has no reason to be concerned with how well that system functions. Interestingly, a lot of the people who embrace this argument to condemn vouchers are people who do not have children in the public school system.

Many once had children in that system. Others have nieces, nephews, and grandchildren in public schools. All of them have at least friend with a child in the public school system. All of them are capable of realizing the benefits of living in an educated society and suffering the cost of being immersed in a poorly educated society.

It is strange for these people – people without children in public schools -- to be arguing that a person’s interest in making sure that the public school system functions well depends upon having children in that system.

An Educated Citizen

An Educated . . .

I have written that the state's interest is in producing educated citizens. This means that the state has an interest in requiring that the children for whom vouchers are used are actually getting educated.

This implies that the classes for which vouchers are used must be classes that meet the state’s criteria for producing educated citizens. Holocaust denial, for example, would not be a certified class and no voucher money would be permissibly used to pay for this option. Creation science would also not be a voucher-supported class.

The best option that I can see for making sure that vouchers are actually used to educate children would be to empower universities to accredit classes, and for the state to allow vouchers to be used only for classes that are accredited by professionals in the relevant fields.

. . . Citizen

This takes care of the "educated" part of the formula "educated citizen.” The "citizen" part is also important.

Those who finance this education have reason to expect that the money will create graduates that are not a threat to others. This means educating students not only in how to read, do math, and understand the world around them. It also means teaching them to respect truth over lies and deception, kindness over cruelty, and responsibility over recklessness.

The people who are contributing this money also have a reason to require that the money not go to those who preach hatred of those whose money is being used. Clearly, there is no justice in taxing Jews to send children to schools run by the Nazi Party or KKK. Nor should homosexuals and atheists be taxed to pay for “educating” children to hate homosexuals and atheists.

If a parent wants their child to learn dishonesty, cruelty, irresponsibility, or hate, then that parent should be required to use his or her own money, not money taken from those who will become the victims of this dishonesty, cruelty, irresponsibility, or hate.

Anybody who argues that the state should not actively discourage the teaching of hate, in the name of religious liberty, needs to explain what position they would take to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan using state funds to finance schools that teach hatred of America and of non-Muslims.


To my free-thinking readers, I recommend not fighting the use of vouchers. Instead, I would suggest working to establish schools dedicated to science, reason, and good moral character, and drawing students into these schools, allowing parents to use vouchers to help support their children’s attendance. Schools built on a free-thinking ideology truly due have the power to be the best schools anywhere, simply because those children will truly learn how to think, how to reason, and how to distinguish truth from fiction.

1 comment:

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Even-handed analysis of the religious angle. Thanks.

School vouchers would be a big step up from the current policy but they are too respectful of institutions to promote a rapid evolution of the education industry. Also, school vouchers invite State intrusion into the operation of independent and parochial schools. For these and other reasons, I prefer a policy I call Parent Performance Contracting (PPC). Under PPC, your State Legislature mandates that State (government, generally) schools --must-- hire any parent, on a personal service contract, to provide for his/her child's education, if the parent applies for the contract. Make payment equal to some fraction 0 < a/b < 1 of the school's regular-ed per pupil budget. Make payment contingent on his/her child's performance at or above age-level expectations on standardized tests of reading vocabulary, reading comprehension (any language), and Math.

Parents could then homeschool, hire tutors, extend daycare to age 18, or supplement the contract value and pay tuition to independent or parochial schools.

PPC offers financial and performance accountability, minimizes the threat of State intrusion into the operations of independent and parochial schools, creates a wide range of educational options, requires little new administrative machinery, and elides the whole Church/State separation argument.