The Conservative Case Against School Choice

For years, many conservatives have argued that the surest path to improving the quality of education is to pressure the public schools into better performance by forcing them to compete for funding with private alternatives. Specifically, the hope has been to allow parents to opt out of public schools and use their share of the state’s education budget on private schooling.

Enthusiasts for this model of school reform have been giggling with excitement over Donald Trump’s nomination of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. Before the hosannas for DeVos, and more importantly for the concept of school choice, ring so loudly as to drown out sober judgment, we ought to take a moment to evaluate the real meaning, underlying presuppositions, and likeliest results of this supposedly conservative idea.

Here is a good example of how school choice alternatives are typically defended, from an editorial at Investor’s Business Daily hailing legislation passed in Nevada in 2015:

Nevada has enacted what might be the most sweeping school-choice program yet — a path-breaking win for educational freedom that has left teachers unions wondering what hit them.

The law…gives 450,000 public school kids the option of using taxpayer funds — through what are called “education savings accounts” or ESAs — to help pay the tuition for private schools. Families can use funds in these accounts to also pay for textbooks and tutoring.

Students from families with incomes under 185% of the federal poverty level may receive tuition aid of 100% of the statewide average of public school per-pupil costs. Kids in families with incomes above 185% of the poverty level, roughly $45,000 for a family of four, will qualify for up to 90% of the public school per-student cost.

The IBD editors went on to express the standard conservative dream of the effects of such legislative reform, namely that “this will force public schools to perform and be held accountable. That’s what competition does: It drives poor performers out of business.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And now President Trump will have an advocate of such a model running the Department of Education. What could go wrong?

If constitutional conservatives could all take another deep breath and refrain from lighting the congratulatory cigars just yet, however, they might reasonably ask just what sort of competition is entailed here, and how the so-called education market might be affected by it in the long run.

Under voucher programs or other such schemes, parents currently sending their children to public schools, but wishing to pursue private options, continue to have all or much of the expense of schooling their children provided by the government, i.e., by tax revenues. The difference is only in who receives the money. While the beauty of ticking off government teachers unions and their big labor allies is an unquestionable source of pleasure, this focus on undermining the leftist union leadership conveniently obscures the other side of the coin: under such legislation, schools that were not previously receiving government funding for their efforts will now be receiving it, and in per-student quantities similar to the current budget-devouring black hole of public education. As IBD declared in 2015:

The folks at the Friedman Foundation tell us that with almost half a million children eligible, Nevada’s is “the most comprehensive school choice bill ever because all kids get private options.” [Emphasis added.]

But wait. Don’t all kids, in theory, have private options now, such as homeschooling? Of course, that is not what the Friedman Foundation means. What they and other school choice advocates mean is not merely that private options should be legal for “all kids” (as they already are), but that they should be publicly funded.

There’s the rub. What kind of “private options” come at public expense? The short and obvious answer: the kind that meet with government approval. This is the sort of privatization that corporatists — as opposed to genuine freedom-seekers — always prefer. It is privatization in the form of a subsidized industry, or a government outsourcing system. It is privatization as a competition for government contracts.

During her confirmation hearing, DeVos declared herself an advocate for “great public schools,” with the proviso that parents should be allowed to choose alternatives to failing institutions. Both conservatives and progressives will tell themselves – conservatives with glee, progressives with disdain – that in so declaring she was only saying what she had to say for the sake of her audience, while her real intentions are opposed to public education on principle. Both sides are wrong. Outsourcing of a government function does not constitute an objection to that function, but rather only a difference of opinion about how to realize the purposes of that function most efficiently. In this case, it means supporting the concept of state regulation and micromanagement of child-rearing (for that’s what we are really talking about, lest we forget) while disapproving only of certain inefficiencies of the current methods of fulfilling that function. In other words, it entails the injection of ersatz market elements into the increasingly closed shop of government-regulated child-rearing; or, to state the same thing from the opposite pole, it entails the insinuation of government aims and benchmarks into an increasingly rigged simulacrum of a free market.

To put this more concretely, what would a wide scale win for “school choice” do to whatever remnants of real educational freedom still exist in the United States? As in Nevada’s example, it would establish government funding of private schools — perhaps near universal funding — which would mean the forced elimination (gradual in practice, but immediate in theory) of truly non-governmental motives and sensibilities within the private school world.

Hence, it is not a win for educational freedom, but rather for the progressive canard of “equal opportunity,” the same canard that helped to foster the notion of universal compulsory schooling two centuries ago. As IBD promises, “Poor Hispanic parents, for example, will be able to shop around if they’re not happy with what and how much their kids are learning.” In other words, they will be able to “shop around” with thousands of tax dollars.

This is the progressive premise in full operation: equality is redefined as equal material advantages, such advantages to be equalized through state redistribution. According to this sensibility, the sensibility behind school choice proposals and conservatives’ defense of them, state funding for children wishing to attend private institutions should be provided on the grounds that the benefits of the “best schools” ought to be available to all children, in the name of fairness. But in the realm of government regulation, every “ought to be” has the force of a “must be.” Thus, in the name of fairness understood in the progressive manner — i.e., as equality of material conditions — the statist undertakes to redistribute private goods (in this case education) to rectify the supposed injustice of so-called unequal opportunity, by which the statist means unequal material conditions.

This is not educational freedom; it is paternalistic authoritarianism run amok. Certain goods are perceived to be available to some citizens but not others. The proposed solution is to provide these goods to all citizens at government expense. Once again, this is the same mentality that allowed the creation of the global monstrosity of universal compulsory schooling in the first place, only now with the addition of hard-headed business sense to (allegedly) improve results.

And here we come to the heart of the matter, namely how school choice laws would really affect educational freedom, and more specifically, educational objectives.

What is likely to happen to private education under this “conservative” instantiation of redistributive justice? Ask yourself this question: would any Department of Education approve school choice funding in government dollars for parents who wished to send their children to schools operated by the Ku Klux Klan? Of course not; nor should they. I choose that outrageous example to establish a simple point: the use and distribution of public funds is ultimately and inescapably a political issue, which means that both public sentiment and the prevailing agenda of the administrative state will demand — perhaps even must demand – ultimate authority over the conditions in which those tax dollars are to be allotted.

In other words, access to public money will necessarily come with government strings attached, and where government strings exist, there will be an endless tug of war for the right to use those strings to tie schooling to various “public goals,” as defined by various factions representing various political interests. This political in-fighting and lobbying within the state’s administrative offices is the primary competition that will be fostered by government-funded “school choice” in the long run — competition among paternalistic challengers to family authority and the human heritage. That this political competition may tend in less draconian directions in certain jurisdictions (at the outset) is no justification for allowing the state to broaden the scope of its power as the effective arbiter of standards and purposes even in the arena of private schooling.

Such de facto control will be the inevitable outcome of government funding of private schools through education savings accounts or school vouchers, i.e., tuition welfare. Schools that wish to be included on a state’s alternative school option list will have to conform to the learning parameters dictated by the presiding administrative regime – including, as in Nevada’s school choice model, standardized government testing in conformity with federal Common Core Standards, even if individual states are permitted, in theory, to establish their own testing guidelines. (Betsy DeVos, for her part, was for Common Core, before she was conveniently against it. Do not be fooled by her current rhetoric about states setting their own standards. The claim that standards-setting authority is being devolved to the states has been part of the careful rebranding of Common Core for the past couple of years, and is now often used by leading voices for Common Core, including DeVos’s close ally Jeb Bush. The principle and ultimate aims of the project remain the same: uniformity of educational goals and standards of success.) Schools that do not conform to the state’s parameters will risk being blacklisted as “Non-compliant” or “Not meeting state standards.”  And even if the vision of this or that administration seems relatively open-minded and tolerant of diversity today, this is no consolation for the risk of establishing the precedent of state control over one small corner of child-rearing that has not yet succumbed entirely to government micromanagement.

Public funding of so-called private education gives for-profit schools a financial incentive to compete for publicly-funded students, which means to compete on terms established by the government’s education overseers. Parents who prefer private schools precisely as an alternative to the public school’s aims and standards will become a minority faction even within the private schooling world, where schools seeking higher profits in the form of government dollars — in effect, state subsidies — will now be wooing public school parents with the promise of providing a better version of public school.

All this “competition” over the means to schooling, since it is a competition for state money, will tend towards the shrinking of meaningful options in education, rather than towards the hoped-for panacea of expanding alternatives. Real educational freedom — liberation from government motives and interests — would bring truly expanded alternatives. This pseudo-conservative simulacrum of freedom, on the other hand — freedom of access to the government trough, which is what school choice laws entail — is the evil doppelgänger of real freedom. Under this redefined rubric of freedom, the competition between public and private schooling will increasingly become a government-controlled board game called Equal Opportunity, in which the government banker distributes collectivized wealth to players who compete within the artificially defined boundaries of the game’s rules. The game includes “Choice” cards and a socialized “Community Chest,” and the winner is the player who achieves the state’s goals most effectively. To play outside the rules established by the government bank is to disqualify oneself from the game.

That is, the sudden windfall of (circumscribed) competition in education that is supposed to be fostered by “school choice legislation” is, or will quickly become, a noisy din drowning out the most necessary and essential competition in education, which concerns not the means to, but the meaning of, school. The result of school choice mandated in the form of publicly funded private schools will be to have everyone involved in education, “private” and public alike, clamoring for top honors in a contest aimed at the continuation of the spiritual and civilizational status quo.

The IBD editorial about Nevada’s school choice law ends with some supposed common sense wisdom: “As Milton Friedman used to say, ‘competition will force dramatic change in schools.'”

Let us accept as a general principle that competition in any arena leads to improvement in that arena. Perhaps it is true. The key question, however, is “Improvement toward what end?” This is the question school choice proponents rarely ask, or perhaps hope you will not ask. I assume that competition in illicit drug distribution leads to more people getting stoned more affordably. Competition in prostitution presumably leads to a greater variety of personalized options for the promotion and satisfaction of lust. And competition in education, if that competition is orchestrated and funded by governments, will lead to greater efficiency in schooling as it has been defined, implicitly and sometimes even explicitly, throughout the modern government school era, namely as a worker unit training program for the benefit of the progressive elite. This competition will surely produce a more specialized, spiritually empty, and submissive underclass of compliant workers. It will indeed be a great advance in education: an advance right into the brave new world envisioned by all the great modern advocates of education reconceived as social utility training, from Prussia to the present.

Defenders of school choice laws will object to my argument by saying, “Isn’t any reduction of government control over education a step in the right direction?” Yes it is; but publicly funded school choice is, in its likeliest ultimate effects, a step in the other direction. Even its strongest advocates, such as the Friedman Foundation, tell us that their purpose in advocating this so-called competition is to improve the public schools — that is, to do a better job of achieving the aims of government-controlled schooling through a public-private partnership that would in reality cripple the effort to free children, i.e., your society’s future, from the soft despotism of state-managed child-rearing.

In a 1995 article advocating school vouchers, Friedman himself said the success of such a program requires that “no conditions be attached to the acceptance of vouchers that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment, to explore and to innovate.” It is unclear whether Friedman’s non-interference condition applied to educational ends, or only to practical means — or even whether he had seriously considered the possibility of alternative ends. In any case, no current school choice legislation begins to approximate such a non-interference condition, and none ever will. This would mean the universal dispersal of education tax revenue without any state oversight as to its use, obviously an impossible dream. The state will always, implicitly or explicitly, define the purposes of the market it subsidizes, and the market’s proper standards of “success.” (Why else would they inject state funds into that market?) Education “privatized” under state standards, and funded with tax money, is just public education made more efficient. But government-controlled education does not need improvement, or fresh methods. It needs eradication.

Defenders will also say, “But doesn’t school choice give parents the option of saving their children from the harmful non-academic elements of the public school environment, such as the leftist socialization process?” Real educational freedom would indeed diminish the destructive moral effects of compulsory schooling at both the individual and societal levels. And that is one of the most important reasons never to undermine the private school alternative by reducing it to a government outsourcing program. If educational freedom, including the option of sending children to private schools, is reduced to just another appendage of the mother of all entitlement programs, universal schooling, then fundamental alternatives in child-rearing will be lost.

More effective preparation for standardized government testing, or for being a reliable cog in the global economy, is not the contrary of progressive socialization; the two are merely flipsides of the same coin, satisfying the competing demands of the “conservative” and “liberal” factions of the progressive ruling establishment.

School choice legislation is not a revitalization of educational freedom. It may be the beginning of the end of the very idea of freedom, i.e., of education pursued as self-development training, as spiritual growth training, as moral independence training — in short, as civilized human happiness training. True educational freedom would entail goals and success defined by families devoted to the genuine well-being and best interests of their children, with human nature as their standard, rather than by state overseers (along with their corporate partners) seeking their own well-being and interests.

If education were only about jobs, finding your economic niche, and accommodating oneself peaceably to one’s assigned place in the government’s hierarchical plans for social stability — that is, if the purpose of education were to make everyone more useful and less resistant to the permanent ruling class — then the subduing of private education through government-funded “school choice” might seem highly defensible, at least in principle. So might socialism. So might slavery.

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