Say No to Vouchers (?)

May 20, 2007

by Tammy Drennan Written after Hurricane Katrina 

Voucher proponents face an exciting PR opportunity now that the president has proposed a huge subsidy program for young Hurricane Katrina victims displaced from their schools. Twenty-five percent of the school population of New Orleans was privately educated. We can be pretty sure their parents wish to continue that option, and at a time like this you would seem a hard-hearted person indeed to harp about a few million taxpayer dollars falling into the hands of private schools willing to make room for disaster victims.  I admit we’re facing some extraordinary circumstances, but let’s not exploit one tragedy to promote another. Government-controlled and funded education is a tragedy, if ever there was one. But voucher proponents would have us believe that expanding state schooling to the private sector will result in academic excellence. I don’t question their motives, only their amazing claims. Our welfare system provides a perfect picture of why taxpayer-funded vouchers cannot result in anything but additional educational and societal breakdown. What is it that makes welfare so harmful to individuals, families and society? 

  • Dependency. It robs people of their initiative and self-respect.
  • Despotism. It places the government firmly in control of millions of lives.
  • Crime and addiction. Without the need or motive to work, people turn to other pursuits.
  • Destroyed relationships. People no longer need to depend on and cooperate with one another.
  • Lost children. It robs children of responsible, independent parents.
  • Dullness and laziness. With guaranteed funding, there is no need to create, imagine and compete.
  • Thwarted excellence. There is no reward for excelling, for extra effort or accomplishment.

We’ve watched whole segments of our society succumb to the ills of government subsidy by way of welfare, and I think we’ve learned some lessons, though we haven’t done a very good job of applying them.  In general, we do recognize that welfare dependency is bad for everyone involved. That’s why we keep trying to tweak the system, move people off the rolls, provide incremental plans for independence. Our success has been limited for many reasons, bureaucracy and ideology chief among them — but also because we’ve dug ourselves into a very deep hole without thinking about the potential consequences, and now we can’t quite figure out how to get out. We’ve tried accountability, fines, threats, incentives, reform upon reform, but the dependency hole we’ve dug is not so easily filled. The rich soil we’ve thrown out of it — all the individuals and groups who were already helping, all the people struggling to make lives for themselves — has been hauled off or eroded away. All that’s left is demoralized, frustrated, aimless dependents. One thing we know — complete freedom from government subsidy is the best answer. That’s what restores self-respect and strong families and communities.  Our public schools suffer from all the same ills as our welfare system — for all the same reasons, and yet we fail in even greater measure to apply the lessons we’ve learned from the welfare system to schooling. State schooling robs families of personal responsibility. It stifles creativity, independence, initiative and excellence and robs children of self-respect and self-reliance, not to mention respect and admiration for their parents. It fosters addiction to authority, and there is no small amount of evidence that it also fosters poor relationship skills, emotional neediness and many other ills. As with the welfare system, we recognize that all is not well. We’ve spent generations reforming and tweaking, trying one new plan after another, and as with the welfare system, bureaucracy and ideology have played their parts in preventing significant change. But — and this is a big but — also as with the welfare system, the only real solution is complete independence. A formula based on nocuous components cannot be transformed into something beneficial. The potion must be tossed out. State schooling is a flawed plan at its very roots. We’ve been tweaking the formula for 150 years, pretending all the while that we started with the right ingredients. 

From the outset of state compulsory schooling in
America, the assessment was dismal. Parents complained, colleges complained, legislators complained, students resisted.
 The evidence is conclusive, but having already ceded our intellectual freedom to the government, and being patient and persistent people, we’ve thrown ourselves into one reform after another. We’ve volunteered and increased funding. We’ve made up new rules, built new schools, hired more teachers, expanded the bureaucracy, and sacrificed more liberty. With every reform effort, the evidence is confirmed, but we still can’t accept the fact that if we want excellence and freedom in education, we’ll have to strike out on our own and leave Uncle Sam behind. Our government has us by the brain and we’re ready to help the hangman kick the box out from under our feet. The saddest part of the story is that America does have a rich tradition of intellectual liberty and excellence. But our government schools are not and never were responsible for the great achievements of our citizens. We became the destination of choice for oppressed people around the world because of qualities unavoidably quite foreign to state schooling.  
It was before the advent of widespread state schooling that our patent office was overwhelmed with applications from thousands of “unschooled” inventors. It was before the advent of compulsory state schooling that newspapers and political treatises and religious literature thrived. It was before the state got a serious hold on our children that they indulged in the fiction of Daniel Defoe, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott and  Charles Dickens. It was before our government took over our “education” that we settled the west, steamed up and down our rivers with our wares and produce, built homesteads and farms, communities and churches and cities. But freedom is strong only as long as it’s exercised. Like our muscles, disuse results in weakness and eventual atrophy. As our liberty was wrestled from us and we grew weary of the battle and ceded ground, our freedom muscles began to waste away. Years of academic enslavement have taken their toll, and now we’re hoping we won’t be forced to fend for ourselves. Our muscles are weak, and we fear the pain of rehabilitation. We’re vainly concocting potions based on dependence and hoping they’ll result in excellence. It can’t happen. It never has and never will. The tax-funded voucher potion is one of the most dangerous boiling in our reform cauldrons. Not only does it further enslave the forty-nine million students already under government control, it threatens the education of the eight million children in our country who learn free of the state. Voucher proponents, of course, live deep in the dependency hole and cannot see that the only hope they have of educational excellence is the rich soil of independent schooling that sits heaped about the edges of the pit. The free workers stand at the rim ready to lend a hand to anyone trying to climb out. The number climbing out and the number and variety offering a hand increase every year. But many in the pit are bent on taking those outstretched hands and pulling them into the darkness, instead of joining them in the sun. There is no point debating whether a private school could accept government subsidy and remain entirely free of government regulation. It’s a ridiculous contention and anyone who suggests it is either devious or absurdly naive (for anyone who would like to take a serious look at the issue — study the position of colleges accepting government funds). As former public-schooled students flooded private schools with their vouchers and many private schoolers succumbed to the siren call of an education at their neighbor’s expense, our independent schools would find themselves wards of the state, without the freedom to innovate and without the will to break the bonds of all that “free” money.  Katrina poses a tough situation for us, but also an interesting opportunity. The federal government holds out its hand, calling, “Lean on me.” But
America whispers, “Stand firm, stand together, stand free.”
 Vouchers offer us only one thing — a chance to chain one of our last bastions of true freedom to the dungeon walls. We must not give in. Instead, let’s join independent hands and help one another to the land of intellectual liberty and opportunity.