Can you say “entitlement”?

Home Articles Knowledge Base Vouchers Can you say “entitlement”?....

by Marshall Fritz

Last updated August 11, 2008

Originally published in The Education Liberator, Vol. 2, No. 6, July 1996

The government education monopoly is school welfare, and tax-funded vouchers are the Typhoid Mary of education reforms, spreading dependency and regulation wherever they go.


I once believed that tax-funded school vouchers were a good stepping stone between today’s state-controlled schools and tomorrow’s free-market education. But no more.


Prudence caused my switch away from vouchers; later, Principle ignited passion; now, political Practicality also convinces me that tax-funded vouchers are a bad idea.


For years, prudence has been moving freedom-oriented people to reject vouchers (e.g., Jacob Hornberger, Gary North, Lew Rockwell, Hans Sennholz). Dwight Lee said it well in The Freeman, July 1986: “If the move to purely private schools begins to accelerate, the public school lobby can, and surely will, protect its privileged position by embracing educational vouchers. As strange as it may sound to advocates of educational vouchers, if the voucher approach to education ever becomes a serious political possibility, it will be as a means of reducing competition in education, not increasing it.” He’s right, and I did a 180 degree turnaround in 179 milliseconds.


Hobbling today’s private schools with state controls is too high a price to pay for “choice.” While vouchers will provide a flurry of competition and change, real improvement would be delayed for decades until vouchers prove that they, too, cannot repair a tax-funded, i.e., government controlled schooling system.


Big Brother, moving in


Confirmation that statists are aware of the opportunity to use tax-funded vouchers to take control of independent schools is available from no less than Marshall Smith, current Undersecretary of Education. In the Politics of Education Association Yearbook, 1990, he writes: “[We do suggest a strategy to] help control many of the negative aspects, and even enhance the positive aspects of a full choice model. The state curriculum frameworks would establish a protective structure that would help ensure that all schools were attempting to provide a challenging and progressive curriculum.” (P 259) (Translation: Private schools will teach what we tell them.)

Freedom-loving voucher proponents like Clint Bolick recognize the problem of expanding state authority over private education and say we have to draft voucher proposals “carefully” to avoid the risk. But it can’t be done! If the government is paying the bills, politicians_not to mention the public at large_will demand oversight because they want to know what they are getting for their tax dollars. How can conservatives support Sen. Helms in his quest to control the art supported by millions of tax-dollars via the National Endowment for the Arts, and then pretend their schools can accept billions of tax dollars without controls from Sen. Kennedy? Long-time voucher advocate Milton Friedman concedes that controls will follow the money, “[I]f the government spends the taxpayers’ money, it is right and proper that it should be concerned with what it gets for what it spends.” (Free to Choose, 1980, p113).      

While the above prudential “He who pays the piper calls the tune” argument has convinced some conservatives and libertarians to renounce vouchers (see interview with David R. Henderson), a recently rediscovered principled insight might convince many more, perhaps so many that support for vouchers will collapse. The late Max Victor Belz, a grain dealer in Grundy County, Iowa, said in 1951: “I don’t want my children fed or clothed by the state, but if I had to choose, I would prefer that to them being educated by the state.” (We like this quote so much we have given it a place of honor on the front page of every issue of The Education Liberator.) Mr. Belz saw the principled argument that “public schools are welfare.” If he saw it so clearly, how did the rest of us miss it?

Public schools are welfare schools

Maybe we failed to see that public schools are welfare schools because most of us grew up as welfare boys and girls, taught by welfare workers, and, as parents, have become 4th and 5th generation welfare “queens” and “kings.”

I made the same mistake. I brought children into the world expecting others to pay for their education. Did you? Maybe the reason the working and professional people get so angry at the welfare people is that the vast majority of us have adopted the same entitlement attitude, and at some deep level we don’t like ourselves for it.

Think about it: If a “free lunch” at noon is welfare, why isn’t a “free math lesson” at ten o’clock also welfare? Government education is the granddaddy of all welfare programs and the linchpin of the welfare state. The “free education” notion has seduced not only the needy away from responsibility and into dependence, but the middle and upper classes as well. We all have adopted the entitlement attitude that the government “owes” children a “free” education at a government-run facility. Conservatives who would be outraged to have the government take over the feeding, clothing and sheltering of 88% of America’s children have little difficulty permitting the state to take charge of their education, arguably a more intimate and sacred responsibility than their material needs.


Recruiting farm workers onto welfare

Here in Fresno, we hear stories about social workers recruiting farm-workers to go onto welfare. A professor of social work confirmed to me that the stories are true. Most of us recoil with horror at recruiting someone who is responsible for their family to drop that responsibility and become dependent. Even if the family is forty percent better off financially, the welfare will kill the spirit.

Now look at the tax-funded school voucher. Twelve percent of America’s school-children are not on the school dole. Their parents are financially responsible for their children’s schooling, some at great personal sacrifice. The voucher approach will seduce many of them onto the school dole. Voucher advocates are unwittingly doing the same encouraging of dependency as the welfare workers.

One key part of the superiority of private schooling is that the parents are responsible. Take away that responsibility and you make everyone the equivalent of a food-stamp user. Making an entitlement more flexible does not make its recipient more responsible or “empowered.”


Vouchers expand the welfare state

Once you grasp the welfare role of government schooling, you can see exactly where tax-funded vouchers would lead: to an expansion of the educational welfare state, not a contraction. State-granted vouchers would make welfare recipients out of many of those 12% who have managed so far to resist the temptation to have others pay for their children’s education.

This principled argument is already attracting voucher advocates to reconsider. For example, economist David R. Henderson, who has written pro-voucher articles for the Hoover Institution and Insight magazine (1/10/94), and was formerly an economic advisor to President Reagan, now says, “Vouchers are a horrible idea that will only increase dependence on the government.”

I said there are three reasons to dump vouchers: Prudence, Principle and Practical. Now, let’s talk Practical: Vouchers are in trouble politically. As a Californian, I can tell you the voucher movement is deeply divided among three groups: The protect- school-autonomy purists (e.g., Milton Friedman) who believe there should (and can) be a no-strings-attached voucher; the egalitarians (Jack Coons, Terry Moe) who believe voucher-redeeming private schools should be required to reserve 15% of their seats for poor kids; and what I’ll call the “marketing folks” (e.g., John Walton) who listen to exit polls and focus groups to find out which regulations the public wants.

The marketing mentality can lead to bizarre ideas. For instance, the recently proposed legislation for a pilot voucher program in Jersey City expressly forbade schools from teaching “magic or witchcraft.” By what principle should the State of New Jersey single out adherents to pagan religions for ineligibility? Are the advocates of educational freedom defining what is and what is not an acceptable form of religious teaching? Maybe it’s time for a new bumper sticker:

Is your denomination
BATF approved?

The 1993 California School Choice Initiative, Proposition 174, lost by more than two-to-one while trying to protect private school autonomy. Re-writing Prop. 174 to accommodate public demands for control will create for voucher advocates a second front. In addition to the resources against the unions, voucher folks will be fighting a war about Prudence and Principle against their former allies, small-government conservatives, Christians, and private schoolers. As a practical matter, vouchers aren’t likely to win a two-front war.


Full separation the only answer

What is the answer to the school mess? We need full separation of school and state. The Russians allowed the state to take over the farms in the 1920s and 30s; they ended up with lots of farms and not enough food. We Americans allowed the state to take over our schools in the 1840s and 50s. Now we have 85,000 government-run K-12 schools and not enough education.

How do we get government completely out of schooling? Part of the job is to create the appetite for Separation in the minds of the American people. That’s why the Separation of School & State Alliance was founded. If you’d like to read the case for full Separation, there is no better place to start than Sheldon Richman’s Separating School and State, published by the Future of Freedom Foundation, Fairfax, Va.

Surprisingly, a Wirthlin Group poll shows a quarter of the population is already in favor of it. My public speaking convinces me that another half will favor Separation when they see how poor kids can be assured of access to better schools than they have today. For a solid answer to this concern, see Chris Cardiff’s article in the July 1996 Freeman magazine (not Montana!), “Education: What About the Poor?”

I believe privately-funded vouchers are the major part of the answer.  J. Patrick Rooney, president of the Golden Rule Insurance Company in Indianapolis, started the private voucher movement in 1991. Now there are 23 private voucher centers around the country, supporting 10,000 children. We need 23,000 centers supporting 15 million children.

Unfortunately, many people in the private voucher movement see it as a temporary affair, a sort of “pre-game show” to be replaced in a few years by government vouchers. But there are a couple of fellows in Washington, D.C., who have a different idea. Doug Dewey and George Pieler at the National Scholarship Center are trying to use private charity to grow the non-government education sector as well as liberate needy children from some of the worst inner city schools. Dewey and Pieler estimate that every poor child in America could attend private school for $16 billion in partial scholarships, about half of California’s education budget.

But we don’t need to raise that much to end state schooling. When one million poor families shake off the yoke of government dependence for their children’s education, the end is near. When we see that we don’t need government schools for the poor, for whom do we need them?

How can we confidently predict Americans will give $16 billion in charity to help kids from poor families go to schools better than those they attend today? Three reasons:


  1. Americans give $100 billion to churches;
  2. When schooling is no longer financed by government, Americans can demand a tax cut of the amount now spent on schooling, $300 billion. Private schools will cost something under half that, freeing over $150 billion per year.
  3. Americans already give $27 billion in charity to higher education.

Besides, little kids are cuter than college kids.

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