Tag Archives: Andrew Coulson

Are School Vouchers (and Charters) Really the Free Market at Work? Does the Free Market Include Government Funding/Regulations?

by Gretchen Logue of Missouri Education Watchdog

Andrew Coulson from CATO writes about the idea of “choice” and why many “choice” proponents who espouse “free market” are actually promoting unconstitutional ideas.  We at MEW have some rather spirited discussions the last several days with “choicers” about our recent articles on “choice” questioning whether this “choice” actually is free market or markets propped up by tax dollars.

Education is free market when the government doesn’t fund it and regulate its operation.  Coulson wonders how government funded vouchers can be considered free market by the choice movement.  How can does a government funded “choice” in education containing the same mandates as traditional public school be classified as free market?  Coulson explains why vouchers are not really choice at all in Obama, Romney, Teachers, and Choice:

Jay Greene has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal this week revealing that the teacher workforce has grown dramatically over the past forty years—and at enormous cost—without improving student achievement by the end of high school. And he rightly disparages President Obama for arguing that even more teachers would somehow do the trick. Even better, Greene notes that American education will not reverse its productivity collapse and become efficient until we allow it to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace.

But then Jay cites Governor Romney’s goal of “voucherizing federal education funds so that parents can take those resources and use them to send their children to schools of their choice,” and he does so with apparent approbation. Even ignoring the fact that the Constitution does not empower Congress to run education programs, this is a very dangerous idea.

There has been no civilization in the history of humanity in which governments have paid for private schooling without ultimately controlling what was taught and who could teach, erecting barriers to entry and thereby crippling market forces.

For that reason, I recommended against a federal voucher program under the Bush administration. Since then, additional evidence has come to light. When I studied the regulatory impact of U.S. private school choice programs last year I found that even the small existing U.S. voucher programs do indeed impose a heavy and very statistically significant additional burden of regulation on participating private schools.

Perhaps a way will be found to enact and maintain minimally regulated voucher programs in the coming years. Until that time comes, it would be the height of folly to introduce a federal voucher program whose regulations would suffocate educational freedom from coast to coast.

In my statistical study of choice program regulation, I found that K-12 tax credit programs do not impose a statistically significant extra burden of regulation on private schools. But even a national K-12 tax credit program would be far too dangerous. By leaving education policy to the states and the people, we can see which programs flourish and which become sclerotic. We must encourage and learn from that policy diversity, not squelch it with federal programs or mandates.

Coulson has the correct idea about educational delivery and the only solution that is constitutional:  leave education to the states and the people.    Don’t try to sell the federally funded voucher idea as a viable alternative to traditional public schools when the private schools will have to conform to the same mandates and regulations of the traditional public schools.

He doesn’t mention charter schools in this CATO article, but I wonder if he would make the same argument when scrutinizing the free market argument made in favor of charter schools.  In this 2001 article from thefreemanonline.com critiquing a book on charters, he raises concerns about taxpayer funding of charters and understanding that once the government funds these schools, they lose their autonomy:

The risks and shortcomings of charter schools are several. For one thing, whenever the state rather than the consumer pays for a service, we have the breeding grounds for fraud and corruption. Parents cannot be duped into paying for children they do not have, but the same can’t be said of government agencies. The authors describe several fraudulent abuses, but fail to acknowledge that the problem is intrinsic to the separation of payment from consumption.

Allowing the government to hold the educational purse strings also draws the attention of charter schools away from families and toward the state. In a market, producers increase their income either by cutting costs or demonstrating improved services for which consumers are willing to pay more. Charter schools will only be able to raise revenues by lobbying the state. The 14-fold increase in inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending that has occurred in government schools over the past 75 years is a sobering harbinger of what to expect under charter schooling. The authors provide evidence of this lobbying already occurring among the country’s nascent charter schools, but seem not to understand its importance or inevitability.

Finally, charter schools preclude the direct financial responsibility of parents that history shows to be crucial for the maintenance of parental involvement in, and control over, their children’s education.

Based on historical and contemporary precedents, charter schools are likely to be re-regulated to the point where they are indistinguishable from traditional government-run schools. The authors are aware of this “ominous threat,” but can offer no solution.

The downside of charter schooling would be of negligible importance if their impact were limited to charter schools themselves. Charter schools would still constitute some improvement over traditional public schools. The real concern is that previously independent private schools are being lured into the charter fold. If large numbers of private schools adopt charter status, the eventual re-regulation of charter schools will expand the government education monopoly. The authors make no mention of this Damoclean sword hanging over the charter movement.

Don’t try to pass charters off as free market when they are taxpayer funded.  Don’t privatize education via charters where taxpayers and parents have no decision making abilities and mandates (not laws) dictate how and what standards/assessments will be taught to students and pre-determined vendors cash in on supplying the curricula and systems needed because of the mandates.

If your state legislators espouse “choice” as conservative and free market ideas, send them a copy of Coulson’s article.  These “choices” as they are currently constructed are neither. 

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