Curmudgucation: The Future of Vouchers
If you listen very carefully, you can hear what one likely future for school vouchers will be.
New Hampshire, in particular, seems to have leapfrogged over other voucher states to come that much closer to the end game. Nationally, Libertarian-leaning folks make the case that choice is good for its own sake, that the moral imperative to give people school choice outweighs any potential down side. But in New Hampshire, in a Libertarian Institute podcast, Free State board member Jeremy Kaufman explained that school choice and vouchers are just "a stepping stone towards reducing or eliminating state involvement in schools." But that's only a part of the picture.
The flap over public education in Croydon, NH, is also instructive. Croydon had a choice program--in fact, a voucher program far more expansive and reaching than virtually any other in the nation. The deal was simple--the town would pay every students' full tuition to the school of their parents' choice. Private, public, even religious. It was exactly what school choice fans ought to love. Instead, the Free Staters and friends in Croydon took an axe to it, cutting the district budget so severely that parents faced the prospect of no choice at all except for low-cost "microschools"-- basically computerized homeschooling. That company (Prenda) is being pushed on the whole state.
The "problem" was that the program was too expensive; the cut-in-half budget was based on the idea that it should cost about $10K for each kid to get an education.
Take this quote from a piece by Jody Underwood, one of the Free Staters who was wielding the ax in Croydon (Underwood told me that this piece is not her speaking, but her adopting the voice of a hypothetical taxpayer--for our purposes it doesn't make any difference.)
But I think the proponents of ‘school choice’ programs don’t understand (or take seriously) one of my major concerns. If they can use my money to send their children to private schools, then I can demand that it not be wasted on ‘schools’ that might be no more than glorified day care centers. That requires some kind of oversight — although not necessarily by bureaucrats who benefit when prices go up and quality goes down.
Also, I don’t think the people on either side of this debate appreciate how frustrating it is for someone like me, who is on a fixed income, to have to pay to school the children of people who can afford to pay for it on their own. To have poorer people providing a discount to richer people is perverse. There’s just no other word for it.
When and/or if we get a fully voucherized state, and once that battle is in the rear view mirror, we'll see language shift. At some point, vouchers will be called an entitlement. And once we've been conditioned to think of the money following the child rather than funding a school, we'll hear more of Underwood's rhetoric: "Why am I paying tax dollars to send Those Peoples' Children to school? Why is MY money following YOUR child?"
We'll start cutting the entitlement, or if the political winds aren't right, simply letting inflation whittle it away. Parents will complain, "I can't get my child a decent education with this paltry voucher," but voucher-cutters will protest, "Sure you can. Just look at Bob's Mini-Microschools and Ed-R-Us School In A Box! Perfectly fine. If you want something better, pay for it yourself."
Maybe there will be some sort of Poverty Bonus Voucher so that it's not obvious that the poors are being abandoned. Maybe "public schools" will exist as underfunded holding pens for students that can't be accepted anywhere else. Maybe someone will come up with a clever way to funnel block grants to select private (religious) schools. Local districts would, in many cases, follow the Croydon plan and cut any remaining public school system's taxpayer support to the bone, or just shut it down.
But once we are in voucherland, it is likely to look like this::
Parents will be on their own.
Anti-tax forces will be empowered to shrink the voucher.
Private schools will retain their ability to discriminate against students and staff as they see fit.
Students who are poor and/or require extra supports for their education will get sub-optimal education.
Well-to-do families will have fine choices.
Taxes will go down, which would be an insidious side effect because any attempt to restore an actual public education system would involve a huge bump in taxes to fund any such system.
Remember, privatization is not just about privatizing schooling and making private individuals and corporations the owners and operators of the education system; it's also about privatizing the responsibility for providing an education and making it the private problem of parents instead of the shared responsibility of the community.
I have no doubt that there are voucher advocates who sincerely believe in the power of choice and who think that it would give us a richer, stronger, more robust education system. But for far too many voucher fans, it's a tool for gutting the public education system, getting government (and its taxing powers) out of education, and restoring a world in which people know their proper places--and stay there. For some the dream really is that each person is an island, and everyone else better stay the hell off mine!
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