By Jacob G. Hornberger
As the debate over socialism between President Trump and his Democratic presidential opponents heats up, we shouldn’t forget a socialist program that Trump and other conservatives have come to love — the school-voucher program.
Like other welfare-state programs, vouchers are based on the socialist concept of using the force of government to take money from one group of people and using it to pay for the education another group of people. The irony is that conservatives justify their socialist program by saying that it is being used to save children from the disastrous consequences of another socialist program, public schooling.
Of course, voucher proponents are right about public schooling. With its army-lite system of regimentation, deference to authority, memorization and regurgitation, and obedience to orders, the public school system is the very model of a socialist system. The government, either at a local, state, or federal level, owns and operates the system. Everyone, including the teachers and administrators, works for the state. The state sets the curriculum and provides the textbooks. Attendance is mandated by law. Funding is through the coercive apparatus of taxation.
Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that public schooling is in crisis or chaos. That’s what socialism does. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that public schooling severely damages people’s passion and love for learning. Socialism has long been known to destroy the inner spirit of people. Just ask people living in Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, all of which, needless to say, have public-schooling systems too. They’ll confirm what socialism does to a society.
There is but one solution to socialism: End it. Dismantle it. Repeal it. That necessarily entails separating school and state, the way our ancestors separated church and state. End all governmental involvement in education. No more compulsory-attendance laws. No more school taxes. No more public (i.e., government) schools. A total free market in education, one in which families are deciding the best educational vehicle for each of their children and one in which entrepreneurs are competing against each other in the provision of educational services.
Thirty years ago, when Milton Friedman, who ironically was a libertarian, was proposing school vouchers, he argued that vouchers constituted a way to transition to a system of educational liberty — that is, one in which the state would no longer play any role in education.
Friedman was wrong, as I pointed out in an article entitled “Letting Go of Socialism, which FFF published in September 1990, the very first year of FFF’s existence. Friedman responded to my article in a speech he delivered shortly after the publication of my article. First complimenting FFF on the work we were doing, he emphasized that we share the same goal — the separation of school and state. He steadfastly maintained, however, that vouchers were the way to transition to that goal. Read a transcript of Friedman’s talk here.
Today, 30 years later, it is easy to see how wrong Friedman was. In Milwaukee, for example, they have had a voucher system for more than 25 years. There is no evidence that vouchers have gotten Milwaukee closer to ending the state’s involvement in education. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Vouchers have more deeply embedded the state in education. The socialism of school vouchers has combined with the socialism of public schooling to make things even worse than they were before.
Friedman’s position was never logical. School vouchers are state monies that are given to private schools. Once a private school goes on the voucher dole, that means it is going to have an influx of students that it didn’t have before. That means more buildings and classrooms, which means a large capital expenditure. It also means hiring more teachers and administrators.
After doing all that, what are the chances that a private school on the voucher dole is suddenly going to say, “Time to end the public schooling system and the voucher system that has been attached to it”? No chance at all, especially since that could possibly mean a reduction in students, a layoff of teachers and administrators, and default in loan payments to the bank. Once a school goes on the dole and stays on the dole for years, one can reasonably expect that it will fight to continue its dole and come up with any rationalization and justification for it.
In fact, the voucher system has also corrupted the thinking of voucher proponents. Today, hardly any voucher proponents take the position that Friedman openly and erroneously took — that vouchers are a transition to ending all state involvement in education. Even if they believe that, they keep it secret because they know that it will cause some people to oppose vouchers. Thus, today virtually every voucher proponent couches his argument for vouchers with the argument that a voucher system helps to improve the public-school system through competition and “choice.”
Thus, unlike Friedman, voucher proponents today have made peace with public schooling. They make no no efforts to end this socialist monstrosity. Their only interest is in advocating another a socialist system — school vouchers — that is designed to take children out of public schooling and put them into private schools — schools that are also controlled by the state by virtue of their receipt of state voucher monies.
There is one and only one way to end all government involvement in education: repeal compulsory attendance laws and school taxes and close down all the public schools. Separate school and state, in the same way our ancestors separated church and state. A total free market in education.
Obviously, making the case for educational liberty is much more difficult and challenging than making the case for vouchers. The voucher proponent can assure people that their basic socialist educational system will remain intact and possibly even improved, which they can feel good about. The advocate of liberty, on the other hand, must convince people of the merits of an entirely different paradigm — one in which the state plays no role in education whatsoever.
Let us libertarians leave socialism to conservatives and liberals. Let them continue defending public (i.e., government) schooling, vouchers, and other socialist schemes and reforms. Let us libertarians continue raising a higher standard, one that is based on liberty and the free market.
This article was originally published at The Future of Freedom Foundation.