School choice forces are coming for your neighborhood public school

Legislation now pending in the Georgia General Assembly provides for tax-supported vouchers parents can apply toward private school tuition for their kids, the vouchers to be worth roughly what the state spends on a child in a public school.

Voucher Crew by David FitzsimmonsTo the voucher proponents, it’s only about reducing government’s footprint in American life. Boosting student achievement isn’t a priority for them and diverting public funds from public to private schools is a feature, not a bug.

Vouchers draw a predictable response from public school advocates: There’s no evidence that vouchers raise student achievement and overwhelming evidence that they divert funding from already strapped public schools.

It’s important to understand that the opposing forces on this issue aren’t even on the same planet.

To the public-school defenders, it’s all about educational access and quality.

To the voucher proponents, it’s only about reducing government’s footprint in American life. Boosting student achievement isn’t a priority for them and diverting public funds from public to private schools is a feature, not a bug.

The voucherists take their inspiration from a 1955 article by the late libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who argued for vouchers from a general premise about the role of government.

“I shall assume,” he said, “a society that takes freedom of the individual, or more realistically the family, as the ultimate objective, and seeks to further this objective by relying primarily on voluntary exchange among individuals…. In such a free private enterprise exchange economy, government’s primary role is to preserve the rules of the game by enforcing contracts, preventing coercion, and keeping markets free.”

That assumption makes public education a fat target because, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, government at all levels in this country spends about $660 billion a year on elementary and secondary public education, an immense government footprint.

Although most of that wealth eventually find its way into the private economy, Friedman would’ve preferred by far that it bypass government entirely.

Friedman’s first choice was that all education be fee-for-service. But failing that, he argued that the only thing justifying any government role in education is some benefit that can’t be packaged, priced and distributed in discrete bits by voluntary private exchange. He thought that living in a society of citizens committed to democratic values is such a benefit.

Public school advocates have traditionally made exactly this case themselves. We can’t uphold democratic values, they say, unless people have at least a rudimentary understanding of them. So we need public schools to educate people for citizenship and community leadership.

Freedman accepted that premise but argued that the traditionalists’ conclusion doesn’t follow because we can secure what he and they agree is a public good without having the government operate schools. All it takes is for government to give people money they can use to send their kids to privately owned schools meeting minimum government standards for transmitting democratic values.

That sounds reasonable and public-spirited. But Friedman gives the game away when, noting that his voucher scheme would apply only to grades K-12, he makes the astonishing claim that most of “the appropriate content of an educational program for citizens of a democracy” would be covered by “the three R’s,” just basic literacy.

That tells me that the rhetoric about instilling democratic values in our children is only a thin rationale for Friedman’s real objective: diverting public funds to subsidize what’s essentially a private, not a public benefit.

With public schools enrolling the vast majority of the K-12 population, there isn’t enough demand to entice many private operators into the educational services sector. So Friedman proposed to create a robust private K-12 educational services market by spreading a lot of public money around and setting a very low barrier to entry for private operators, just the capacity to teach basic literacy.

Over time, he foresaw the virtual disappearance of public K-12 schools, except in rural areas whose populations can’t support more than one school. But he looked forward to even those government schools falling to advancing urbanization.

So what blessings did Friedman expect from this massive shift in the way we educate most of our kids? Contrary to what some current voucher cheerleaders predict, he didn’t see competition forcing traditional public schools to up their game. In fact, nowhere does he suggest that there’s anything wrong with traditional public schools educationally. The only thing wrong with them, by his reckoning, is that they’re government operated.

He counted on privatization to “stimulate the development and improvement” only of private schools, enabling “them to grow relatively to State institutions.”

The whole point of this scheme, remember, is to phase out public schools in favor of the private sector, awash in new entrants having to get up to speed. Except for rookie private operators on steep learning curves, promoting educational quality wasn’t on Friedman’s agenda, hardly surprising since the genius of free markets isn’t to deliver quality. It’s just to maximize the satisfaction of consumer preferences whatever they are.

As he put it, “…competitive private enterprise is likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demands” than other arrangements.

We need only look to the auto market for an example. The auto market doesn’t just crank out Rolls Royces. It casts up everything from Rolls Royces to clunkers decaying on used car lots.

In the same way, what we should expect a private education services market to deliver is whatever there’s enough demand for: schools that prioritize athletics over academics, the arts over STEM subjects or the reverse, high-powered college-prep, religious doctrines, etc.

Provided they’re not government-mandated, Friedman is fine with the market even offering racially segregated schools. And after justifying all this in terms of educating for democratic values, Friedman sums up by saying, with no apparent awareness of the irony, that in Friedman-world, parents will be able to vote for and against schools with their feet instead of “through cumbersome political channels.”

It can’t be any clearer that there’s absolutely no common ground between traditional public-school advocates and school voucher supporters. While the former are committed to quality education as they understand it, the latter are committed only to choice for its own sake. In the world the choice forces envision, your neighborhood public school wouldn’t be on the menu.


Image Credit: the editorial cartoon "Voucher Crew" was created by David Fitzsimmons and licensed by at using the donations of generous people like you.

Leon Galis

I'm an Athens, GA, native and have been living in Athens since 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008 I've written approximately 80 columns for the Athens Banner Herald and a handful for Flagpole Magazine in Athens.