Revival of ideas

January 15, 2007

The start of a new year brings with it the revival of ideas. For me this means an opportunity to reflect on lessons from last semester; this to come in future posts. With the change in leadership of various political groups this means legislation. In Texas new leaders in a few arch-dioceses and at the Texas Catholic Conference have organized a rally in Austin on February 7th to demonstrate support for school vouchers. The idea of school vouchers is not a new idea, but often misunderstood by the general public.

The origins of school vouchers are found in the writings of Milton Friedman. Friedman, an unapologetic advocate of free markets, repeatedly wrote about the backwards organization of public education. Friedman wrote that the deterioration of schools was the result of increased centralization. He believed that this coupled with the new technological and political revolutions will widen the differential between the wages of high and low skilled labor. Friedman continued in his 1995 article to the Washington Post that free education markets would be the only way to weaken the current education establishment and salvage the education of future children.

A common misconception of school vouchers is that this system will force public schools to close because of a lack enrolled students. It is this idea that is central to Friedman’s position. Look at the structure of higher education in the United States. Colleges and universities operated on a system that is similar to school vouchers. The system of free market is what forces universities to maintain a competitive edge. It is this system that allows for new ideas in public institutions and new educators to maintain a system that is second to none in the world. If only the same were true for K-12 education.

It is a myth that school vouchers will force public education out of existance. What it will do is force under-performing schools to change or disappear. Is this such a bad idea? Open markets in the mail system has allowed for corporations such as UPS and FedEx to improve the package delivery system, yet the USPS still exists. E-mail and fax changed the way consumers use daily correspondence, still the USPS has not disappeared. These are only two examples of how private organizations have improved previous government monopolies.

While in college I spent a semester researching the effects of school voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Washington D.C. Unfortunately, or maybe not, I am unable to locate my final draft. However, my research demonstrated that in all three of these cases school vouchers did not eliminate good schools. What it did was provide students at under-performing schools an option. I concluded my study the winter before the Supreme Court ruled that voucher programs did not violate the separation between church and state. The reason is that in the programs studied the voucher programs are open to both public and private schools, a true open market.

The principle of voucher programs underline the fact that voucher programs, or school choice already exists for affluent families. The current system of school districts allow families to relocate to a better neighborhood if they do not feel their school district is properly educating their children. Those who disagree with this right of families could then explain to me why in every house listing the school district holds as equal weight as the size of the property or the number of bathrooms. Sometime more.

The bottom line is that students who are not from elite families and are not able to move to a new neighborhood the way middle class families can are punished under the current system. Free markets have provided every industry in this country the opportunity to prosper to a point that the United States economy is the standard for foreign countries. Why then would this be a bad idea for education? Americans complain that low skilled jobs are being shipped overseas with the flattening of the world. Why then do we continue to allow an education system that prevents the children of these low skill workers to enjoy the American dream of a better life than their parents?