The School Voucher Myth

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by J. H. Huebert

January 1, 2003

Here’s a safe prediction for 2003: the Republican majorities in
Washington will not even consider abolishing the Department of Education, and none of the states will shut down their so-called free, so-called public school systems. Countless kids from poor families will be forced to attend government schools where they’ll be just as likely to be a victim of a violent crime as to learn anything useful or even graduate.


Given these certainties, some libertarians believe we need to do something right now to save these poor kids from their 13-year prison sentence (where else but in prisons and in public schools are the warehoused inmates constantly watched, and subjected to warrantless search at any time?). Thus, the “do-something-now” libertarians are pushing for voucher programs, since the United States Supreme Court has cleared the way for them to do so with its decision last summer in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which held that voucher programs that allow students to attend religious schools do not violate the First Amendment.


Vouchers, their advocates usually admit, are not perfect, but are at least, they claim, “a step in the right direction” toward fully privatized, voluntary education, because vouchers rescue kids from their dire state-imposed circumstances.


But in their concern, these otherwise reliable defenders of liberty — people like Dr. Walter Williams, and Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice — focus narrowly on the short-term choice issue and lose sight of bigger, longer-term, and more important issues.


Keep in mind that these are not evil men, plotting the destruction of freedom. Indeed, they are sincere, honorable men of good will, with the best of intentions, but mistaken. And what they are mistaken about is the fact that in this world good intentions are utterly meaningless, only results count.


Ignoring the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt, they look at the short term consequences of vouchers for a few people, instead of the long-term consequences for everyone.


If they fully examined the bigger picture, voucher advocates would see that vouchers are not appropriate, and will destroy any “school choice” we already have.


Vouchers destroy school choice


The short-term consequences of voucher programs will almost certainly be positive, of course, especially for the students who receive them. The children in Cleveland who won in the Zelman case will now be able to attend a private school far superior to the government-operated school they’ll leave behind. One can hardly help but feel good for those kids, whose potential futures are undeniably brighter because of vouchers.


But government money means government control, and in the long run, those private schools won’t be so private at all, or much different from the government schools to which they were intended to provide an alternative. Every available historical example makes it abundantly clear that when government provides money for something, government expects control over that thing; it’s happened with higher education in this country, and it’s happened with primary and secondary education around the world.


I’ve found that when voucher advocates are confronted with this possibility — that government money will result in a loss of independence for private schools — they tend to agree that this is something we should be concerned about, and then they kind of shrug it off and hope for the best, apparently naively trusting that, just this once, government will restrain itself and not ruin everything.


Clint Bolick, one of the country’s leading voucher advocates, and a lawyer on the winning side of the Zelman case, responded to a question along those lines by saying, “Well, if that happens, we’ll be in court challenging that, too.”


I admire self-confidence, and Mr. Bolick is an amazing litigator. He is a man I have worked with, and is someone I consider a friend. But given that any court can go any way it wants to on any issue, depending entirely upon the whim of the judges or justices involved, is it worth risking the independence of America‘s private schools on any one man’s ability to persuade the courts not to extend government control over private schools, no matter who he may be? The answer should be plain, especially given the courts’ record of, and institutional bias toward, extending government control over pretty much everything.


Besides, this issue has already been decided. In 1984, in Grove City College v. Bell, the United States Supreme Court ruled that any college or university is to be considered a recipient of government money “and therefore subject to government regulation of its financial aid program — if even one of its students receives a federal loan or grant. And on top of that, Congress subsequently passed the so-called “Civil Rights Restoration Act,” to extend federal regulation over all of these schools’ programs, if even one student uses federal money to attend them.


Why would we expect a court or legislature to act any differently when it comes to vouchers for primary and secondary education?


The safe bet is, the voucher issue won’t be any different. Government control always follows government money, and when it does, “choice” disappears, just as it has among institutions of higher education.


But couldn’t some private schools turn down vouchers? They could, but there would be strong financial incentives against doing so, when all of their competitors will take them. In higher education, only 2 schools (Grove City College and Hillsdale College) have had the courage to turn down government funds and avoid government control. Why would we expect things to be any different for primary and secondary education?


One can look to other countries for examples of how government has destroyed school choice through funding to “private” schools. Australia attempted a government funded “privatization” of its schools, and the result was increased regulation, centralized decision-making, and loss of private school independence.


The same can be seen in Europe, where government funding has virtually destroyed religious education, and resulted in tight control over almost all decision-making in the private schools that remain. Why would we expect things to be any different when government begins funding heretofore private schools in this country?


Vouchers destroy liberty


Now that the First Amendment hurdle has been cleared with the Zelman decision, voucher advocates still face barriers in most state constitutions. Many state constitutions contain “Blaine Amendments” or other state provisions that explicitly prohibit “compelled support” by taxpayers of religious schools. So now, according to Clint Bolick, the challenge is to convince state courts that, despite what their constitutions may say, it’s okay to force taxpayers to give students money to attend private religious schools. (See Clint Bolick, “School Choice: Sunshine Replaces the Cloud,” Cato Supreme Court Review 2001-2002, p. 168.)


At this point, libertarians who thought vouchers were about liberty should really be scratching their heads. Why would a libertarian ever want to go to court to convince the government that it should force taxpayers to pay for something they weren’t previously forced to pay for? How can forcing people, against their will, to pay for new things — that have nothing to do with the proper role of a “limited” government — be a step in the right direction? That isn’t libertarian; instead, it’s a goose step in the opposite direction.


True choice


Libertarians understand that when you have a goal, you should take the peaceful actions necessary to achieve it. The best way to achieve any goal — like educational freedom — isn’t to try to persuade a majority of voters to agree with you. That goal isn’t necessarily impossible, but it’s doubtful that you’ll ever achieve it — or that your children will still be school-aged by the time you do.


Many parents across the country know a far superior way to escape government control altogether, right now: they homeschool their children. Homeschooling is a solution for parents who want to be free from government schools (“public” and “private”), right now. True, homeschoolers still have to pay taxes for government schools, and don’t get any of it back. It’s just a fact of life that freedom isn’t free in the United States. But if freedom is important to you, you can have it, without creating a new welfare/anti-choice program like the one the voucher crusaders advocate.


In the meantime, libertarians have an opportunity to continue to promote genuine educational freedom: absence of all coercion in education, and genuine, unlimited choice.

J. H. Huebert attends the University of Chicago Law School, and has a website at For more details on how government money destroys private education, see his monograph,Independent Schools at Risk,” The Freeman/Ideas on Liberty, September 1999.

This article was originally published in; republished with permission.