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Vouchers: the progressive policy loved by the right and hated by the left

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Growing up, I attended a private, Christian school until 4th grade, when my mother couldn’t afford it any more and my brothers and I switched to a blue collar, suburban public school. Academically, I experienced a clear difference. The worst contrast was in math, where I learned basically nothing for three years. The only subject that was probably better at the public school was science, but I’m not even certain about that. Class sizes were larger too.

None of this is to say that I didn’t have good teachers and experiences and learn a great many things at my public school. I did, and I’m quite thankful for it, in fact. And, of course, private schools are perfectly capable of employing bad teachers and failing to properly educate their students. But this was my experience.

So in high school, for purely anecdotal and self-interested reasons, I supported school vouchers, much to the chagrin of many of my teachers. (There was a state level proposal in the 2000 Michigan election in support of vouchers that I wore a button supporting — I wasn’t old enough to vote at the time. Incidentally, the proposal failed.) After all, I thought, I might not have become such a slacker if I had continued to be challenged in my public school like I was in my private school.

With the recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education by president-elect Donald Trump, vouchers may become a national issue. She has championed the cause and supported politicians who do for years.

Able now to take a less self-interested look at the issue (or so I tell myself), I’m actually a bit confused by the politics of vouchers — why isn’t there more skepticism on the right and support on the left?

Sure, the left generally supports public sector teachers unions. Vouchers would introduce new competition into the K-12 market that would threaten the public school partial monopoly and thus the power and pull of those unions.

People on the left often will also complain that some schools will fail if they lose students and, thus, funding. But people on the right tend to say, “Good. Failing schools should fail! Those students deserve better, and competition will motivate improved educational quality. The public schools that already do a good job don’t have anything to worry about, only the bad ones.” So on that level, the left’s opposition and the right’s support for vouchers (speaking generally, of course) makes sense.

But that’s only one angle. Vouchers do increase competition, but they also increase the potential for government influence. When tuition money comes from the state, the state can attach strings. Those who hope this could be a boon for private schools may find that if, purely hypothetically, vouchers became universal, down the line the very thing that helped these schools and families in the short term is used as a channel to manipulate them and undermine their sovereignty.

It’s not as if we haven’t recently seen religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor have to fight all the way up to the US Supreme Court just to prove that they should qualify for a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act. Do we want religious schools across the country to have to fight the same battles, with equal uncertainty of success?

Add to this the fact that for Betsy DeVos (again, only hypothetically at this point — she hasn’t proposed anything yet) to mandate vouchers from her post as Secretary of Education would be a hugely top-down move, violating state’s rights in determining education policy.

So why aren’t more people on the right skeptical?

But that’s not all. There’s another angle to this as well: Vouchers work by redistributing resources from the upper classes (primarily through income and property taxes) to the lower classes. They are explicitly aimed at fighting economic inequality, not only by providing funding but through the goal of better educational outcomes, which in turn correlate with higher incomes. It reduces the privilege of the privileged. Sounds pretty progressive to me.

So why don’t more people on the left support them?

A libertarian might interject that a better solution would be not using public funding to pick winners and losers in K-12 education in the first place. Just privatize all public schools and stop taxing people! I’m sympathetic to this, but it seems that there should at least be some minimal safety net available for those who, in those circumstances, wouldn’t be able to afford schooling for their kids at all (and truancy is currently illegal anyway). I’m not willing to live with the consequences of doing nothing, even if the results for many would improve. Not only does every child deserve an education — God made our minds to grow in knowledge — but having an educated citizenry is a public good as well.

So where does that leave me? Confused. Or, at least, conflicted.

I do think students from lower income families, especially those stuck in failing public schools, should have more options, and vouchers might be the best, most realistic policy to make that happen. We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, after all. But it would be imprudent to ignore the potential negatives on many levels. In particular, a national mandate for vouchers would open the door for national meddling in private education.

Perhaps one could say that private schools need not accept vouchers. In this way, they could prevent themselves from being held hostage by a secular agenda attached to tuition and maintain their sovereignty. But those who did so would be at a clear market disadvantage as artificially created as the current public school monopoly. They would need to (1) charge students more, (2) decrease costs by increasing class sizes or decreasing staff salaries, or (3) increase donations. The first would, of course, lead to excluding more low income students. The second would decrease education quality. And the third might not be feasible.

Further, presuming private schools may hold differing views about any potential conditions placed on voucher funding — some being content to comply, some considering compliance a betrayal of principle, depending on the requirement — those who passed on vouchers would be in a more disadvantaged market position than private schools currently are in states and localities without voucher programs.

Think, for example, of how most Catholic schools teach evolution in biology classes but some Evangelical schools and others do not. If teaching evolution were made a requirement for receiving voucher dollars, the Evangelical schools would be at a huge disadvantage. (This, interestingly, is precisely the opposite of the worry of many on the left that with vouchers taxpayer money might be used to fund schools that teach intelligent design.) Vouchers could, thus, introduce economic incentives for compromising one’s principles that would otherwise have been absent.

So my final answer is that I don’t have an answer. Not only isn’t this a clear-cut issue to me, but I’m confused as to how the political divide on the issue isn’t more complicated. I’m interested to see what Betsy DeVos will do as Secretary of Education and even cautiously optimistic that there are many things she could do to improve K-12 education, not to mention higher ed.

But at the very least, I’d like to see more democratic support for vouchers and more testing at local and state levels before making this a national issue.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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