Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Are vouchers "good welfare policy"?

Is Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute right, that the voucher plan is just "good welfare policy"? This is what he wrote last week at Utah Amicus, responding to Megan Risbon's concerns as a single mother questioning the affordability of private schools, even ones that would accept public-funded vouchers (

One beautiful aspect of this new law is that it does require some sacrifice (sometimes very significant sacrifices) and that is good welfare policy...and that is what this bill is "supplemental income."

Well, I'd never heard anyone call the voucher plan a "welfare policy," or "supplemental income" for that matter, so I googled "school vouchers" and "welfare" and was surprised to find out that, yes, a lot of traditional conservatives consider public-funded private school vouchers to be a form of welfare -- which is why they oppose public-funded private school vouchers.

How is it that traditional conservatives and Mr. Mero use the same word to describe public-funded private school vouchers, yet traditional conservative oppose them and Mr. Mero supports them?

I only scanned the first several pages of google search results but here's a sample of what I found, going all the way back to 1998, in an article by Michael Chapman in Investors Business Daily, found here (

"The inability to pick and choose among one of the reasons public schools are in trouble," said Lew Rockwell, director of the free-market Ludwig von Mises Institute. "Apply the same rule to private schools, and you go a long way toward making them carbon copies of the schools so many are anxious to flee."

Also, the voucher money doesn't go to kids of "middle-class people who actually pay the taxes that support the public schools," Rockwell said. Instead, it goes only to "those the government defines as 'poor.'"

That group already gets big subsidies for health care, housing, day care and food. "Vouchers represent not a shrinkage of this welfare state but an expansion, the equivalent of food stamps for private school," Rockwell said.
"A voucher is a wealth-transfer scheme that takes money from the haves and gives it to the the force of taxation," said Marshall Fritz, head of the Fresno, Calif.-based Separation of School & State Alliance. "The name for that is welfare."

Sheldon Richman, an author who has written extensively on school choice issues, agrees. He notes support for voucher programs is often couched in terms of "social justice."

"Poor people don't have the same choices in cars or country clubs or restaurants," Richman said. "Should we have vouchers across the board? All of a sudden they're egalitarian."

One person adopted Mr. Mero's position, however, regardless of the traditional conservative opposition to welfare: economist Milton Friedman. Mr. Friedman told the magazine, "I prefer unrestricted, universal vouchers."

Mr. Friedman wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal in 2000 about his support for a voucher plan being considered that year by voters in California. He wrote there, “What is needed for a truly competitive educational industry is an unrestricted voucher of substantial size” that would “cover all students in the state.”

But President Jacob Hornberger of The Future of Freedom Foundation disagreed loudly, writing here (, "If proponents of school vouchers get their way, Americans might well be permanently saddled with one of the most massive government welfare programs in history. What began many years ago as a modest proposal to help those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder with their educational needs now threatens to encompass every child in America." Mr. Hornberger called the California voucher idea "another giant welfare scheme."

He went further, writing,

And a truly free market would entail the end of all state involvement in education, including the termination of the educational welfare program known as vouchers.

School vouchers operate the way all welfare programs do, that is, by using the state’s taxing powers to take money from those to whom it belongs and distributing it to people to whom it does not belong. Of course, we have become so accustomed to this process that we rarely ask a fundamentally important question: Where is the morality in all this? Why shouldn’t parents bear the responsibility for the education of their own children?

Voucher proponents, of course, are free to call for any welfare scheme they wish, but don’t truth-in-advertising and intellectual honesty dictate that they not describe vouchers as a free-market solution to education? After all, how in the world can a system that is based on coercive redistribution of wealth, compulsory school-attendance laws, school taxes, state licensure and regulation of schools, and a voucher tax-and-welfare scheme be reconciled with principles of the free market?

The separation of school and state through the repeal of compulsory-attendance laws, school taxes, and educational welfare would be infinitely superior to the multitude of voucher schemes that are being proposed all over the nation. Not only would educational liberty be consistent with fundamental moral principles, it also would help us restore America’s heritage of individual liberty and free markets.

Two years later, President Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, complained about a voucher plan for Ohio here (, saying,

In other words, the people who do not pay the bulk of the taxes – most Ohio schools are funded largely via property taxes – are getting the bulk of the benefits, while those who do pay the taxes are ineligible for the benefits. If the middle and upper-middle class want to send their children to private schools, they must shell out twice: once for public schools for everyone else and once again for the schools they actually use. Meanwhile, the poor are not only not paying into the public-school system, but now receive a direct cash transfer from those who do pay into the system. In other words, it’s welfare.

But Rockwell is a Libertarian, he says, which must be different from a traditional conservative, yet his position against vouchers is the same as theirs:

This correct position for a libertarian is clear: 1. Deregulate schooling and permit every kind and variety, without compulsory attendance laws; 2. Reduce or eliminate taxes that fund schools; 3. Remove your children from the public schools, the sooner the better, but do it at your own expense. Vouchers do none of the above.

On January 1, 2003, another Libertarian named J.H. Huebert of the University of Chicago Law School agreed with traditional conservatives in opposing vouchers, too, saying, "If they fully examined the bigger picture, voucher advocates would see that vouchers are not appropriate, and will destroy any 'school choice' we already have."

I don't know enough about the differences between Libertarians and traditional conservatives to understand how so many of them can agree on most issues but still be two separate political groups. It must be that there are extreme groups inside each one that are so far away from the middle ground that they bump into each other. But this much seems clear to me: however they get around to their opposition of vouchers, the majority of both groups have some philosophical reason to oppose them. Huebert, for example, wrote here (,

I’ve found that when voucher advocates are confronted with this possibility – that government money will result in a loss of independence for private schools – they tend to agree that this is something we should be concerned about, and then they kind of shrug it off and hope for the best, apparently naively trusting that, just this once, government will restrain itself and not ruin everything.

At this point, libertarians who thought vouchers were about liberty should really be scratching their heads. Why would a libertarian ever want to go to court to convince the government that it should force taxpayers to pay for something they weren’t previously forced to pay for? How can forcing people, against their will, to pay for new things – that have nothing to do with the proper role of a "limited" government – be a step in the right direction? That isn’t libertarian; instead, it’s a goose step in the opposite direction.

In March, 2003, Ari Armstrong of Colorado wrote an article here ( called "Vouchers May Entrench the Welfare State." In it, Mr. Armstrong declares, "Government programs almost always expand. Over time, the controls over currently market schools are likely to become more restrictive. Also, as vouchers expand and offer education welfare to the families of students who now finance education independently, the effect will be to further entrench the welfare state."

Pensacola Junior College instructor Laurence Vance agreed in February 2005, writing here ( in an article called "Vouchers: Another Income Redistribution Scheme," Vance quotes Libertarian Ludwig von Mises: "There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes."

He explains,

To those parents who would use vouchers to send their children to a private school, vouchers do seem like they empower parents and provide educational freedom. But vouchers are not about educational freedom, they are an income transfer program from the "rich" to the poor. [Clint] Bolick even admits that vouchers are "a form of income redistribution."

But considering the state of public education in America, aren't vouchers a step in the right direction? Aren't they better than doing nothing? To the contrary—vouchers will make the present system worse. Rather than increasing educational opportunity, vouchers will increase the government's grip on education, increase the costs of education, increase people's dependency on the state, and increase the overall power of the state.
Vouchers are an income transfer program in two respects. Not only will people be forced to pay for the education of other people's children, voucher dollars will be an additional tax burden. Voucher proposals never advocate any reduction in funding for public schools to pay for them. The state may eventually embrace vouchers if it can use them to its own advantage to foster increased dependency on the state. With a voucher system, both parents and children will look to the state for educational services more so than they do now.

Finally, a December 2005 article in Reason magazine, found here (, asks several leading conservative thinkers about school vouchers and welfare.

President Marshall Fritz of the Alliance for the Separation of School & State wrote,

Tax-funded school vouchers are the biggest obstacle to improving education. They will again trick parents into believing school improvement is just around the corner. They could delay return to a genuine free market by a generation or more. Vouchers replace today's monopoly with a "monopsony" (single buyer). Schools will have only one customer to serve--and it's not you. Follow the money.

As Douglas Dewey once asked, "How is moving from 88 percent of the school population in dependency to nearly 100 percent a good first step toward zero percent? What possibly could motivate edu-welfare parents to demand a lower and lower voucher?" The cost of vouchers is exorbitant: converting virtually all of today's 27,000 independent schools into "public school look-alikes" whose competition will be merely grubbing for government bucks.

And Mr. Hornberger, quoted again, says that people "lack confidence that the market will work successfully with education."

Unfortunately, as well-meaning as they might be, voucher proponents reinforce that lack of trust. If they truly believe that a free market in education would succeed, why would they feel the need to advocate welfare, which is what vouchers are, as a way to get there?

So, based on these comments, I would conclude that Mr. Mero holds the view that a lot of traditional conservatives and Libertarians hold: that public-funded private school vouchers are "welfare." But I would also conclude that most traditional conservatives and Libertarians oppose welfare AND oppose public-funded school vouchers, which leaves Mr. Mero and the Sutherland Institute, and the sponsors of House Bill 148, somewhere on the extreme fringe of their own political ideology.

Now, I'd like to figure out whether or not Mr. Mero is right in saying that public-funded private school vouchers are "supplemental income." If it is, it's subject to state and federal taxes, so that's important to understand, too.