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Liberalism's Favorite Arguments Against School Choice

Many liberals are terrified of what might happen if American families are ever given the power to choose where their children will be educated. According to their critics, no lie or deed is too foul for them to use in their effort to mislead the public into opposing any piece of legislation that might weaken their own power. The teachers' unions and liberal politicians manifest their vested interest in the public school monopoly by attempting to block any attempt to weaken their control over the minds of America's young. Evidence for this claim is easily available from the television commercials against school choice broadcast in states considering voucher plans.

School Choice Will Hurt Minorities and the Poor

The answer to this false charge begins by noting that the poor and minorities in our inner cities will be the greatest beneficiaries of school choice. As Stephen Arons points out, “it is the poor who suffer most from the present educational system.” As Arons explains, the poor “get both biased and poorly taught classes. The rich can pay public school taxes and still manage to pay private school tuition. Others can move to suburbs with public schools that at least teach some skills effectively. But this, of course, means being able to buy a house and pay expensive property taxes to finance the local schools. As usual, the poor family has no such options. The local public school, especially in the inner cities, is often both an educational and a moral disaster, but poor parents have no choice but to send their children there, often at the price of an inadequate education for their children.”

The issue of family choice has begun to move to center stage for an increasing number of African-American families. In such localities as Cleveland and Milwaukee, where school choice has become a reality, the strongest advocates of school choice include black parents. Among the factors moving African-Americans to school choice are such things as higher academic standards, greater discipline and parental involvement in private schools. Liberals have good cause to be terrified of family choice in education. Their stranglehold on African-American voters may well crumble, once American blacks recognize how liberals have stood in the doors of private schools, denying their children access to an education in decent school buildings with competent teachers. As Susan Hanks explains, school choice “does not leave children of poor families in failing schools. Rather, it is their ticket out.”

Vouchers will give parents incentives to pay more attention to the education of their children. They will give school administrators incentives to pay more attention to the concerns of parents and the needs of students. They will give teachers incentives to give students and their families a better product. And they will give educational entrepreneurs incentives either to start new schools in the inner cities or to transport children from the inner city to superior private schools.

School Choice Will Produce a Return to School Segregation

Since existing civil rights laws continue to prohibit attempts to reinstitute segregation, the only way the fears behind this second objection might be realized is through what is sometimes called “white flight,” that is, the wholesale departure by white students from certain public schools. The liberal opponents of vouchers want us to believe that this would leave only poor and minority students behind in the public schools. The charge ignores the fact that most white students have already left urban public schools, for the simple reason that their parents moved outside of the inner city. De facto segregation is already one consequence of the collapse of government schools in the inner city. The simple fact is that school choice encourages racial diversity. School choice will actually increase integration, because it will give minority children in the largely segregated government schools of the inner city the financial ability to pay the tuition at better private schools; it will also give the large number of new private schools the incentive to recruit these students.

School Choice Will Impoverish Public Schools

This is supposed to happen because private schools will skim off the best students while leaving the worst students behind in the public schools. We are supposed to believe that this will destroy the financial support for many government schools.

There are several ways to rebut this charge. David Harmer develops one of them when he asks, “If the best students can't wait to leave, what does that say about the quality of the schools? That is an argument for school choice, not against it. If the government schools are doing such a poor job of meeting the needs of the high achievers, then we ought to let them leave. Excellence in education can hardly come from suppressing the excellent students. The exodus argument sounds like the old East German regime talking about the Berlin Wall: if we take it down, everyone will leave. Exactly; that is precisely why it should come down.“ Furthermore, Harmer continues, students who are ”doing well academically, athletically, or socially in the government schools [have] little incentive to leave. One who is having trouble is far more likely to benefit from an alternative.“

Another line of argument with regard to this so-called “Exodus” argument requires educating people about the way markets operate. Over time, the competition generated by vouchers will create more schools and result in existing schools getting better. It will mean that educational entrepreneurs will establish new schools in inner city neighborhoods that will lead many promising students who live in the inner city to attend these schools. Competition among schools will lead to inner city schools being run by more competent administrators who will create a safer and better environment for learning in inner city schools. “Schools of choice have proven their ability - and their desire - to improve the academic outcomes of poor children. Recently, Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York offered to take the lowest performing 5 percent of students in New York City's public schools into New York's Catholic schools, where they can succeed.”

School Choice Will Destroy America's Public School System

It is difficult to understand why so many Americans seem more concerned about the allegedly negative effect school choice will have upon our government schools than about the powerfully positive effect it will have upon America's young people. The consequences of school choice for government schools will depend on how willing those schools are to offer a good education. The educationist establishment and liberal politicians focus on the government school system and its needs. They act as though government schools exist for their own sake when common sense tells us they exist as a means to an end, teaching children. School choice will change all this and require everyone to begin concentrating on the children school systems are supposed to educate. As former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett points out, “Maintaining a system isn't our goal; teaching children is. The government school system is a means to that end, not an end in itself. Failure to make that distinction distorts most discussions of educational reform, which tend to center on how to shore up the present system rather than how to teach children.”

Dirk and Robert Mateer contend that this objection to vouchers “is the hollow claim of a failing monopolist. The American educational monopoly, gorged with public funds and loaded, in each state, with statutory perquisites and power, is close to intellectual and moral bankruptcy. The system as a whole appears irreversible, seeking to sustain itself by political power, when its real chances of survival will depend upon the thing it most loathes - competition. The government education establishment has sought consistently to impress upon the public the notion that it is not only the superior educator, among all American educators, but should be deemed the sole educator. The establishment deems itself not only the setter of standards to which all should repair, but the rightful holder of total power even over private education.“

Almost 90% of American young people are presently educated in government schools. It simply does not make sense to think that such a massive system will be forced out of business. However, no one should grieve should circumstances lead substandard schools, public or private, to close down, a situation that would create opportunities for the former students of those schools to transfer to new and better schools.

The competition generated by a voucher system would make it necessary for weak schools to improve. When any business cannot compete because it offers an inferior product or charges too high a price, its demise is inevitable, unless it is part of a state monopoly. Only government agencies and monopolies continue to exist in spite of incompetence and waste. As Robert Lutz, president of the Chrysler Corporation observes, “Competition won't kill public schools, But in many cases it will force them to act differently, to adopt different priorities, to make needed changes, to cut costs where they are wasteful to devote more resources where they will do more good, and to become more customer-focused.”

As schools become more important, parents will be less tied to the traditional school districts and will have the power to decide which school their children should attend. Those schools that do a good job of teaching and serving families will thrive. Schools that do not will lose their financial base and unless they correct their deficiencies, they will fail.

Vouchers Will Encourage the Creation of Fraudulent Schools

Opponents of school choice often claim that a voucher system will encourage the formation of schools without course requirements or academic standards. (I will ignore the irony of public school supporters who are suddenly concerned about academic standards). As though this were not bad enough, we will supposedly see the creation of unregulated and dangerous schools established by cultic extremists that will prey upon the children of uninformed and disinterested parents. To make things even worse, these schools will be funded with tax dollars.

It is important to remember how difficult it is to organize fraudulent schools. For one thing, there are plenty of existing laws against fraud and child abuse. Moreover, according to Charles Rowins, president of the California Association of Private School Organizations “Starting a new school- finding a site and complying with zoning, building, health and safety regulations, raising money and hiring a staff -is 'very serious and difficult.'” Properly written legislation should forbid the redemption of vouchers by schools that give false or misleading information about themselves.

The most important restraint against the abuse of the voucher system is the way in which parents, as consumers of education, make their choices. As David Harmer points out, “parents motivated enough to leave the government school system in search of a better education for their children are highly unlikely prey for new operators with no track record.”

William Bennett points out that Liberals and educationists appear to think that “Parents left to themselves, would allow awful things to be done to their children. The [teachers'] unions' patronizing attitude toward parents is: We know better. The record clearly shows otherwise.” According to David Harmer, “The best guarantor of quality is a parent with the power to take his or her child out of a school that isn't working. Parents don't need degrees in educational administration to know whether their children are being challenged academically. Parental empowerment is a far more effective motivator than regulation.”

There is always the possibility that some parents will send their children to radical schools. The enabling legislation for school choice should include ways of testing the performance of schools, including the requirement that schools meet minimum proficiency standards. If public or private schools failed to meet minimum standards, they would be shut down. It seems likely that the few radical schools that might exist would survive either the academic requirements or the fiscal requirements.

Even under a worst case scenario in which unwise or unconcerned parents place their child in a bad school, other market forces would be at work. Unless one follows the lead of many liberals and assumes the racist attitude that minority parents are completely unable to make wise choices, vouchers will create new levels of interest and accountability among parents who heretofore have paid little attention to their children's education. As parents talk to other parents, there is bound to be some comparison between the educational effect different schools are having on students. This will help many parents to realize they have made a bad choice. Of course, it is also important to realize that when it comes to many inner city families, it would be difficult to send children to any school that could be worse than the neighborhood public school.

Vouchers Will Increase Education Costs

Let us remember the kind of people who make this claim. They are typically spokespeople from the teachers' unions or some other left-wing group defending a government school system that typically spends two-thirds or more of its budget on items that having nothing to do with teaching. These people are often educational hacks drawing inflated salaries from a system that assigns the lowest possible priority to the teaching budget.

The claim that a voucher system will increase education costs and thus lead to higher taxes is preposterous. Government schools presently cost at least twice as much to operate as private schools. Every time then that a child leaves a government school for a private school, the costs of educating that child will decline by 50%. Under the present government school monopoly, however, children who leave government schools do not reduce the public school budgets. The government schools simply find new ways of wasting the money the government continues to send them. The school system may increase administrator salaries or travel budgets, for example. Or they simply hire at huge salaries large numbers of new bureaucrats who have no teaching duties. Government schools often have as many as 100 times the number of non-teaching employees of government schools as private schools in the same locality.

Nor will school costs rise because of the need to transport large numbers of students to schools located outside of their neighborhoods. In many cases, transportation costs could be absorbed by parents who decide to send their children to non-neighborhood schools. This is almost always the case with children presently enrolled in private schools. Their parents pay the private school tuition and also invest the time and effort to transport their children to school. Car-pooling is always an option. In the case of private schools interested in recruiting a pool of students from the inner city, many might be willing to absorb transportation costs in return for the additional income they'll receive from a larger student body. After all, a small school must still pay a teacher's salary whether that teacher has ten students in her class or twenty.

According to Dirk and Robert Mateer, “The truth is that more choice through vouchers would probably substantially reduce the burden on the taxpayer. For instance, in Philadelphia the Catholic system of private schools accounts for almost 40% of the student population and costs only 50% or so of the amount the public school system spends per student. The current estimate is that if the Catholic schools were to close, the state would have to raise taxes annually by one billion dollars to handle the increased enrollment in the public system. In other words, the Catholic system in Philadelphia is currently saving the taxpayers of Pennsylvania $1,000,000,000 annually!” The Roman Catholic School System of New York City educates students for one-third the cost of the city's public school system.

Vouchers Will be Bad for Teachers

Vouchers will be good for teachers. A voucher system will do more than enhance the freedom of students and parents. It will also produce greater freedom for teachers. They too will have educational choice, the opportunity to select schools best equipped to utilize their personalities and skills and hence reap the reward of knowing they are truly serving the students they teach. Vouchers will bring more schools into existence. One consequence of this is that many of these new schools will be superior to many existing public schools. With more schools seeking good teachers, teachers will have more opportunities to teach better students under better conditions. Because there will be greater competition for good teachers, private school pay will rise.

Centralized administration declines in importance as individual schools struggle for educational solutions that permit teachers and students to prosper. Schools change, experiment and innovate. Teachers who love their work blossom in such an environment and reap appropriate rewards. Under a voucher system, both the school and the teacher will become more important than they are under the present government monopoly.

If one ignores the purely political agenda of teachers' unions, it is difficult to understand how the unions could oppose a program that would give teachers more freedom, better students and better job satisfaction.

Vouchers Violate the Constitutional Separation of Church and State

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The courts have come to interpret this clause in a way that falsely sets up a wall of separation between church and state. Philip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley argues that the clear and unamiguous language of the First Amendment was intended “to prevent the federal government from making laws about religion, and thus to leave this subject to state and local authorities.”

During the last half of the Twentieth-Century, however, a succession of Supreme Court rulings have effectively turned the establishment clause upside down. As Johnson explains, “Intended as a restriction on the federal government, it became instead an open-ended charter for the federal judiciary to impose on local school boards its own vision of the proper relationship between religion and the people. Of course, that vision has turned out to embody the agnostic viewpoint of the knowledge class. The public schools, which are the only schools available to most non-wealthy people today, are resolutely secular....Since the 1960s the triumph of a more militant secularism in the public schools has been consolidated. The superficial signs of this consolidation include the banning of school prayers, Bible readings, and Christian programs. The much more profound change is in the adoption of a moral and intellectual relativism that affects every aspect of school life.... Public schools are increasingly perceived as anarchic, drug-ridden, politicized, and permissive.”

Even though the liberal reading of the First Amendment seems to have won the day, that hardly settles things in the favor of public schools. The fact is that America's public schools are not religiously neutral. There is a religion taught in and tacitly endorsed by our public schools (though certainly not by all public school teachers); it is the religion of secular humanism. In order to grasp the religious nature of much that occurs in government schools, it is necessary to recognize that religion cannot be equated simply with a belief in God plus such activities as prayer and worship. When religion is understood in its more comprehensive sense as ultimate commitment, religion may also be manifested in atheism (the belief that God does not exist) and in the conviction that the traditional content of religions like Christianity and Judaism has no proper place in the teaching of a public school.

Public schools do not achieve religious neutrality by eliminating things like prayer and the reading of the Bible from their institutions. They do not demonstrate religious neutrality by adopting textbooks that avoid any mention of the role that religious convictions have played in the history of our nation. Under the guise of religious neutrality, our schools have become propagandists for a different kind of religion. While secular humanists usually deny this, their denial is hypocritical; they know the claim is true and revel in the power they've achieved. If the Supreme Court would acknowledge this fact, it would face an enormous problem. As Rockne McCarthy explains, “If the Court has ruled consistently that public money may not aid religion, and if it can be shown that public schools teach a real and legally defined religion [secular humanism], then the courts must abandon the secular-religious distinction and decide either to fund no schools, or to fund all schools.”

It is also time to see that a properly framed voucher system will not violate the prevailing reading of the “separation” clause. This is so because the vouchers or scholarships will not be government assistance given to schools. The vouchers will be grants given to children through their parents. The money distributed in this way results from the choices made by families; it does not result from any government decision. Once this fact is recognized, no incompatibility with the First Amendment exists. There is no possible way under a voucher system for the state to promote any religion.

A voucher system is not new or dangerous, as critics allege. The G-I Bill has been a voucher system from its inception without anyone claiming it threatens America in any way. A voucher system will operate just like the G-I bill which permitted veterans to study at church-related colleges and even train for religious vocations. Veterans under the G-I bill or students using Pell grants, guaranteed student loans and other government aid are no more guilty of violating the First Amendment than does a retired senior citizen whose donation to a church may come from his social security check. In recent years, however, liberals in Congress have attempted to increase the federal government's control over religious colleges by insisting that if just one student at the college received federal aid, the college was thereby subject to hundreds of irrelevant federal regulations. Legislation of this sort and the federal power grab that results must be repealed.

As law professor Philip Johnson argues, “When the state gives tax benefits or vouchers to students or parents for educational purposes, the money involved becomes their money, not the state's. Their choice to spend the money for one kind of school rather than another involves no state appropriation or funding decision. If church schools end up with the money, it is because they are providing an educational service that the consumers desire to purchase; secular providers are free to compete with them on exactly the same terms.“ The appropriate educational application of the so-called separation clause of the First Amendment, Johnson continues, ”is not 'secular only' but rather freedom to choose between religious and secular education....The prochoice argument is not weakened if it happens that most parents or students choose to use their vouchers at religious schools. Any preponderance in favor of that alternative simply measures the sum of private choices by free individuals; it does not reflect any state policy of favoring religion.“

To avoid problems about the alleged unconstitutionality of a voucher program, a voucher plan must include all private schools, religious or secular. It must clearly place the power of choosing the school in the hands of the student and her parents. Under no circumstances should the money go directly to the schools. And under no circumstances should the legislation allow the state to have any control over or influence in those schools that have a religious mission. Any attempt by the government to control the operation of religious schools should be challenged in the courts. Naturally, private schools will still have to respect current legislation about such matters as discrimination.

Disinterested and Uninformed Parents Will Make Bad Choices

Critics often claim that voucher plans overlook disinterested and uninformed parents who will make bad choices for their children. Of course, it is worth asking why people who profess such concern for children insist on leaving them in bad government schools. But it is worth examining this contention.

It seems highly likely that some parents will choose bad schools under a voucher system. Of course, given the miserable conditions at the kinds of government schools the children of such parents probably attend, it is hard to see how the children could be worse off. Keep in mind that we're talking about children who spend twelve or more years in public schools and end up being functionally, culturally and morally illiterate.

While some bad choices will be made, most parents will think carefully about where their children will go to school. There is reason to believe that many parents who have been indifferent to the hopeless condition of their children's government school may abandon their prior indifference because of the sense of empowerment that school vouchers will give them. Once parents see how they can change their children's lives for the better, more of them will become involved in their children's education than they have been under the government monopoly system. We must remember that a major reason why the government schools have become so bad is because no one outside the monopolistic establishment is monitoring the schools. A voucher system will give parents incentives to conduct such monitoring.

It is also important to recognize an incipient racism in this liberal charge. The argument clearly assumes that poor and minority parents are incapable of making good choices for their children. It also assumes that the government knows better than these indifferent and unmotivated parents. Indeed, the entire liberal case against vouchers assumes that the government and the education establishment knows better than any parent. Advocates of the voucher system clearly believe that parents make better judgments than bureaucrats and politicians and union bosses.


Proponents of family choice in education should have no difficulty answering the bad arguments liberals use to attack vouchers. As Robert and Dirk Mateer point out, “The simple truth is that there are no compelling arguments against the use of vouchers that are anything more than an attempt by the educrats to maintain the status quo in education which is to their advantage and to the great detriment of our nation and our youth.” Family-choice advocates need to become better prepared to educate the millions of Americans who have difficulty recognizing the falsehoods and fallacies contained in the liberal message.