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Blocking the Exits

Friday, May 1, 1998

Libertarian opposition to school vouchers is an attack on freedom

What do many thoughtful, committed libertarians and Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers union have in common? Almost nothing—except their opposition to school choice. Answering the concerns of these libertarians is essential to defeating the reactionary likes of Feldman and realizing the potential of school choice.

School vouchers empower parents to spend their public education funds in public, private, or religious schools. The cause of choice unites conservatives, most libertarians, and growing numbers of centrists and even liberals. It brings together disparate reformers because all at once it expands parental autonomy, increases competition, promotes educational equity, and addresses the greatest challenge facing America today: ensuring educational opportunities for low-income children in the inner cities.

Some libertarians fear, however, that school vouchers will not expand freedom, but will instead turn the private schools that serve roughly 11 percent of America’s youngsters into clones of failed government schools. That price, they argue, is too high, even for the sake of expanding the private sector in education and improving opportunities for millions of youngsters who desperately need them.

I wish the school-choice naysayers could have shared my experiences with the public-school monopoly and the choice alternative. My original career aspiration was classroom teaching; remarkably, upon my graduation from college, the New Jersey education cartel conferred upon me lifetime teacher certification. But my experiences as a student teacher left me convinced that our system of public K-12 education desperately needed fundamental change. I concluded, first, that parents, not bureaucrats, should control essential education decisions; and second, that a system of parental choice should replace the command-and-control system of public education in America.

For a long time school choice held only academic interest for me, but I became downright militant about the issue in 1990, when I had the honor of defending the constitutionality of the nation’s first school-choice program, in Milwaukee. I walked the hallways of the schools that 1,000 economically disadvantaged children were able to attend for the first time. I talked to their parents, most of whom were themselves poorly educated yet keenly understood that this was a chance—perhaps the only chance—for their children to have a better life. And I saw the beaming faces of children—beacons of pride, self-discipline, and hope. That’s when school choice became a matter of heart and soul as well as mind.

The nation’s second school-choice program, launched in Cleveland in 1995, had an equally profound effect on me. It has permanently etched the figure "one in 14" in my memory. You see, children in the Cleveland Public Schools have a one-in-14 chance of graduating on schedule with senior-level proficiency. They also have a one-in-14 chance, each year, of being victimized by crime in their school. When a school district can offer its children no greater chance of learning the skills they need to become responsible citizens than of being victimized by crime during the school day, we are in serious jeopardy.

The Specter of Regulation

I do not mean to diminish the ever-present specter of government regulation of private schools. When it was enacted in 1990, Milwaukee’s school-choice program was not only challenged in court, but also sentenced to death by bureaucratic strangulation. The education establishment insisted that private schools meet all state and federal regulations applicable to public schools. Not surprisingly, every single private school refused to participate under those conditions. We fought these regulations in court even as we were defending the program’s constitutionality.

The regulatory threat from federal school-choice proposals is even more ominous. For example, when some members of Congress proposed parental-choice legislation for the District of Columbia last year, we found ourselves battling to head off all manner of federal regulations on participating private schools.

Though we won both these skirmishes, we know the regulatory threat is serious. But these episodes suggest caution, not abandonment, of this freedom enterprise. The position of school-choice critics is akin to resisting the demise of communism because the free markets that would emerge might be subjected to government regulation. This is hardly a Hobson’s choice.

Virtually all libertarian arguments against parental choice are grounded in hypothetical speculation. And the greatest antidote to speculation is reality. But even the critics’ worst case does not trump the value of choice. The critics of choice point to the example of American higher education as the ultimate horror story of government control. In the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that postsecondary institutions that accept any federal funds—even student loan guarantees—must also submit to federal regulation. So federal regulators have now ensnared all but a handful of fiercely independent private colleges.

But from the standpoint of our current system of elementary and secondary education, this so-called nightmare looks more like a dream. Libertarian alarmists warn that vouchers will lead to a system of primary and secondary schools under monolithic government control. But that’s exactly what we have already! Only 11 percent of America’s children attend independent elementary and secondary schools, while 89 percent attend government schools. Moreover, private schools already are subject to regulations concerning health and safety, nondiscrimination, the length of the school year, curriculum content, and the like.

In my view, our overwhelming concern should be for those children who are already captive of the educational standards and ideological dogma of the public-school monolith. Surely any reform that diminishes the near-monopoly status of government schooling—even at the cost of greater regulation of private schools—will still yield a net increase in freedom. We should be particularly confident of that outcome when the mechanism of reform is a transfer of power over educational decisions from bureaucrats to parents.

Moreover, the regulatory threat to private-school independence is simply not illuminated by reference to higher education. In that instance, federal oversight entered an arena of vibrant competition between a vigorous and effective public sector and a vigorous and effective private sector. The horizons for elementary and secondary schools, by contrast, are limited by a dominant, overregulated, and ineffective public sector. The likely main outcome of expanding access to the highly effective, lightly regulated private sector will be to deregulate the public sector.

And that is exactly what we are seeing. The mere prospect of school choice has already sparked deregulation of public schools. In Milwaukee, efforts to increase regulation of private schools have failed, while the public sector has responded to choice by allowing more flexibility in the management of public schools and passing two charter-school statutes. In Arizona, a 1994 parental choice proposal in the state legislature failed by just a few votes, but a "compromise" produced the nation’s most ambitious charter-school legislation. Today, one-sixth of public schools in Arizona are charter schools, many of which are operated by private nonprofit and for-profit entities.

The Marketplace Meets the Classroom

Parental choice is the cornerstone of market-oriented education reforms. If we liberate public education funding from the grip of school districts and let children take it wherever they go, we will create a dynamic educational marketplace. I predict that, if we expand these reforms across the nation, then public schools will quickly lose their eight-to-one advantage in enrollment. Instead we will enjoy a system of choice among government schools, quasi-public charter schools, quasi-private charter schools, and private schools; in sum, a system far more free than the command-and-control system to which the overwhelming majority of America’s children are confined today.

I would remind critics of choice that other safeguards support a firewall against excessive regulation. First, private schools can decide for themselves whether to accept choice funding from the government. In Milwaukee, when choice was expanded to religious schools, they were all forced to think long and hard about participating and accepting the modest regulations imposed by the program. In the end, more than 100 of 122 private schools in the city agreed to participate. Critics worry that schools may be unwisely tempted by the prospect of funding, or that they will tolerate rising regulation after becoming dependent on the funding. For the many inner-city schools that are approaching insolvency, this may not be a bad deal. But that is a choice that the schools should be trusted to make on their own—and anti-voucher libertarians who argue otherwise are indulging in uncharacteristic paternalism.

Some schools will exercise their fundamental right not to participate. At the elementary and secondary level, many families can afford the median private tuition of $2,500 to $3,500. We always will have private schools that thrive outside of a choice system, and we should vigorously protect those schools. But that is not a sound basis for denying opportunity to children who cannot afford a private-school education but desperately need it.

A second safeguard is the U.S. Constitution itself. First Amendment precedents forbid "excessive entanglement" between the state and religious schools. If regulations supplant essential school autonomy, they will be struck down.

Perhaps most important, the power of the education establishment will diminish in exact proportion to the power gained by parents. The education establishment fights every meaningful parental choice proposal as if its very survival depends on it—because it does.

The more zealous and irresponsible libertarian critics oppose vouchers because they wish to see the system of government-run schools collapse altogether. The reality is that the public funding of education enjoys nearly unanimous public support. The most extreme libertarians are missing—indeed, helping to defeat—the chance to end the government-school monopoly and to allow public education to take place outside the public sector.

For some of the kids involved, getting out of inner-city public schools is literally a matter of life and death. Many of my libertarian opponents on this issue are people of enormous good will, but when I see them blocking the exits for these children, I cannot look upon them with affection. I understand, even share, their concerns about government’s destructive power. But I do not understand why they fail to see where the interests of freedom lie in this fight.

To them I say: When you actively oppose parental choice, please know what you are doing. You are aiding and abetting the most reactionary forces in American society. They trot you out and use you to preserve the status quo. It is a perverse spectacle.

Ted Kennedy . . . Jesse Jackson . . . Kweisi Mfume . . . Eleanor Holmes Norton . . . Norman Lear . . . Bill Clinton . . . Richard Riley . . . Keith Geiger . . . Sandra Feldman . . . Bob Chase. Among those enemies of change, my fellow libertarians do not belong, for they want what I want: freedom. I believe that a system of parental choice would mark the greatest domestic expansion of freedom in this century.

Friends, come over to the freedom side.