Friday Freakout: Is School Choice Just Another Tool for Central Planners?
By now, just about everyone has heard about Nevada. The state, which didn’t have any private school choice programs, passed tax-credit scholarship and education savings account (ESA) laws in a single legislative session. In a news article I wrote for Watchdog.org, I noted that the ESA program wouldn’t cost taxpayers any more than they’re paying now:
The program does not require additional state money. The funds a state would normally spend on a child’s public education will simply be redirected to the student’s education savings account. It comes to approximately $5,000 per student each year.
A reader responded with what has become this week’s freakout:
It is a shame when anyone resorts to metaphorical biological warfare on their opponents, but despite the pox, “Minarchism Leads To Freedom” makes some points worth considering. Let’s take a look.
Do ESAs “force total strangers to pay for kids that aren’t theirs”?
Well, yes, but so do public schools…and firefighters and parks and police officers. At some point, all of those require taxpayers to pay for the education, safety, or entertainment of other people’s kids. There certainly is abuse and waste of taxpayer money in many tax-funded departments—my colleagues at Watchdog.org will be the first to tell you that—but it’s the waste that’s a problem, not the department itself.
For hundreds of years, Americans have recognized the need for children to be educated. Thomas Jefferson is often quoted as saying, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Furthermore, many state constitutions note the importance of education for all.
In Florida’s constitution, the article pertaining to education begins
The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.
Michigan’s begins similarly,
Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.
Nevada’s constitution includes the encouragement of education as well:
Section 1. Legislature to encourage education; appointment, term and duties of superintendent of public instruction. The legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, literary, scientific, mining, mechanical, agricultural, and moral improvements.
It is good for people to be educated, just as it is good for people to be pulled from burning buildings if they happen to be in them. One could argue over whether the government or private individuals should be responsible for paying for those services (and “Minarchism” might), but what’s clear is the services are for the good of individuals and society.
Are ESA supporters against personal responsibility?
For those who prefer less state control over education and more personal responsibility in education, ESAs are a practical and tested solution. In a public school system, students attend schools to which they’re assigned and learn from teachers and textbooks their parents had little, if any, say in. Parents can talk to their congressmen and congresswomen about changing state curriculum standards. They can attend school board meetings and parent-teacher conferences. But if a school is not a good fit for a student—whether that’s because of bullying, violence, or other issues—parents cannot simply pull their children from the school unless they intend to pay private school tuition in addition to the taxes they pay to fund the public school their child no longer attends.
ESAs work differently. The state’s pot of money designated to fund schools is now designated to fund the education of children. For someone concerned about personal responsibility, this is a gold mine. Parents have much more control over their child’s allotted education funding, and therefore must take on more responsibility. If they’re happy with their local public school, they can stay there. If they’re not, they can leave. They can send their child to a private school or pull together a conglomeration of services, such as homeschooling, tutoring, and education therapies. This systemically encourages parents to become active, think critically, and make informed choices about their children’s education, rather than encouraging them to passively drop their children off at the local public school or bus stop. If they’re still sending their kids to the local public school, it’s not because they have to, but because they’ve decided to.
Are ESAs a tool to centralize education?
Nevada’s pre-choice education system funded, for the most part, only public schools, and 91 percent of the state’s students attended those schools. It was far from decentralized. A universal school choice system like the one Nevada recently enacted will empower individual families to shift away from that monopoly model. Indeed, Nevadans indicated in a poll released earlier this year that, given the choice, they would prefer to send their kids to private schools (43 percent), traditional public schools (24 percent), charter schools (20 percent), and home school (9 percent).
Ironically enough, if government wanted to indoctrinate as many kids as possible with Communist propaganda as uniformly as possible, history shows its best option would be through a monopoly of government-controlled public schools. Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky said as much in their 1919 book The ABC of Communism, which was written during the Russian Civil War and became one of the most widely-read works in Soviet Russia:
“Thanks to the schools, but bourgeoisie was able to impose upon proletarian children a bourgeois mentality. The task of the new communist schools is to impose upon bourgeois and petty-bourgeois children a proletarian mentality. In the realm of the mind, in the psychological sphere, the communist school must effect the same revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society, must effect the same expropriation, that the Soviet Power has effected in the economic sphere by the nationalization of the means of production. The minds of men must be made ready for the new social relationships.”
If the lawmakers who made universal ESAs possible for Nevada families were trying to “be better communist central planners,” they certainly did a poor job of it. In reality, what they did was expand the individual liberty of families while building a system that encourages more parents to take responsibility for their children’s education. Pox on Cheers for them all.
Mary C. Tillotson is a national education reporter for Watchdog.org. She has reported for School Reform News, published by the Heartland Institute, and The St. Ignace News in northern Michigan.