Who Says Vouchers Wouldn't Work?

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So, since 1978, taxpayers have paid the full tuition for Kirby's grade-school children to attend school in adjacent towns (and at least the state union average for high-school pupils). The town continues to pay for two school buses to transport most of its pupils to the schools of their choice, although some must arrange their own transportation.

Among the available schools is Anna McClaughry's. Three years ago a private grade school in Newark, 18 miles from Kirby, closed its doors when the proprietor decided to take a sabbatical. Some of the suddenly unemployed teachers and the parents of the pupils founded Riverside School, located on the Kirby side of nearby Lyndon. The school offers instruction in grades 5-8, emphasizing literacy, the mastery of traditional subject matter ("social studies" has been banned), French and Latin, environmental appreciation, and computer knowledge. In contrast with most public middle schools, three of its six teachers hold degrees from Yale, Harvard, and the Sorbonne.

Five of the "orphan" Kirby pupils are attending Riverside, their full tuition of $1,750 paid by the taxpayers via the Kirby school board. (Parents of the remaining 21 pupils, who come from towns that maintain public grade schools, must pay the tuition themselves.) Headmaster Richard Koehne told Reason that he is very pleased to have the Kirby pupils, noting that the town's voucher system creates more potential customers for his school. "We especially like having kids come from Kirby on the voucher plan because it broadens our student body mix," he says. "Otherwise, we would have only children of parents who could afford the tuition on top of the property taxes they pay to support the public schools."

While Vermonters, unbeknownst to the rest of America, have been carrying on their voucher-like tradition, a debate about vouchers has been part of a growing movement in the country to change public policy so that more parents will have a meaningful choice about their children's education. The reason for this movement, as Harvard law professor Charles Fried aptly summarized recently in the New Republic, is that "many individuals are deeply dissatisfied with the public education system and the network of union and political alliances that make it particularly hard to change."

Parents have traditionally had the option, of course, of sending their children to private schools. This option was threatened in Oregon early in this century when the state legislature passed a law requiring attendance at government-operated schools. Fortunately, that law was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1925. Justice James McReynolds, speaking for a unanimous Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, declared that "the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

The Pierce case ended the legal threat to the existence of private schools, but parents who desired private education for their children have still faced the problem of cost. There is no exemption or rebate from the various taxes used to support public education. And thus nonpublic education has been the province either of the affluent, who can afford to pay both bills, or of parents whose church-notably the Roman Catholic and Lutheran-has managed to offer parochial schooling at less than its true cost.

The double burden is not insignificant. The Census Bureau figures that total expenditures for elementary and secondary schools in the 1980-81 school year had to be funded by $444 in taxes per man, woman, and child in the United States. So a couple with two children was paying $1,776 in taxes to support the public school system that year, regardless of whether their children were actually attending government schools. If a family chose to send their children to private schools, they would pay, in addition, around $400 a year for church-affiliated elementary schools and $1,500 for other private elementary schools; private high schools cost even more.

In the late 1940s, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church made a serious push in Congress for government aid to parochial schools, triggering a spirited church-state controversy that ended in the proposal's defeat. Over the next 20 years, however, a new proposal emerged from three quite different quarters. Called the "tuition voucher," it provided for government grants directly to parents, who could then use the proceeds to purchase education for their children from the school of their choice, whether public or private.

An early and eloquent advocate of tuition vouchers was free-market economist Milton Friedman. In 1962, in his influential Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman stood the time- honored argument for public education on its head. Do public schools produce a healthy mix of rich and poor, black and white, etc.? Perhaps in the days of the small town with only one school, but not with the rise of populous urban and suburban areas that are economically and racially stratified. A poor black urban family, Friedman pointed out, could possibly save its money and buy the same fancy car owned by a well-to-do white suburbanite, without also buying a fancy house in the suburb. But it was highly unlikely that the black family could afford to send its children to first-class schools located far away from the lower-income black neighborhood. (And a recent study by the National Institute of Education suggests that, after two decades of efforts at integration, minority parents are in the same position today.)

How could a system widely regarded as incompetent, over-costly, and perhaps unjust be most improved? Some people favor an end to all state involvement in education, but that is "outside the range of political feasibility today," Friedman wrote in a 1973 New York Times Magazine article. In an essay published in 1955, however, Friedman first wrote of vouchers, saying that they would "give competition and free enterprise greater scope" and "pave the way for the gradual replacement of public schools by private schools."

For most of America this was a startling new idea, but Friedman's proposal was close to the system already in place in some Vermont districts. He would have local school boards provide parents of every school-age child a voucher for an amount equal to the average cost of educating a child in the local government schools. The parents would "be free to spend the voucher and any additional sum they themselves provided on purchasing educational services from an 'approved' institution of their choice," Friedman explained a few years later in Capitalism and Freedom. "The role of government would then be limited to insuring that the schools met certain minimum standards, such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs."

Friedman emphasizes that parents should be able to use their vouchers in both private and government schools, whether in the school district or not, if the schools are willing to accept the children. This, he argues, would give parents real freedom of choice, encourage healthy competition among schools, and inject a market standard for teachers' salaries.

Nothing came of Friedman's proposal at the time, but others began to think along the same lines. Christopher Jencks, a liberal professor of education at Harvard University (now at Northwestern University), advocated a voucher system as early as 1966. In 1970 he argued that vouchers could meliorate the plight of black children in underfunded and ineffective ghetto schools. Since despite a decade of civil rights agitation and progress, it did not appear that black schools in white-dominated cities would ever be brought up to the level of the better white schools, Jencks favored vouchers to allow blacks to attend the white schools instead of the schools nearest their homes.

Meanwhile, a few Catholic educators were warming up to the voucher idea. Unlike the earlier proposal to divert tax monies directly to parochial schools, the voucher plan ostensibly subsidized parents, just as the post-World War II GI Bill had subsidized students. It would then be immaterial whether the parents cashed their vouchers with parochial schools or nonsectarian private schools or public schools. Inasmuch as the earlier GI Bill had stimulated a wave of trade schools created expressly to relieve veterans of their GI Bill dollars, this contention was somewhat transparent; but the movement still grew.

During this period, however, the opposition was far from asleep. Advocates of public schools saw that a movement toward vouchers would threaten their effective government monopoly over education. Local school boards and superintendents didn't like the proposal. Teachers unions particularly opposed the idea, it being easier to organize a relatively small number of large public-school systems than a large number of small private schools. In addition, as Friedman had argued, the teachers recognized that a real marketplace for education would mean competitive pressure to hold down their salaries. So the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers began to allocate substantial resources to heading off the voucher scheme.

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