Voucher Madness

To the NCGA, education is just another item priced to sell
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

North Carolina's legislature is about to starve public K-12 education and drown the wraith in the nearest fishing hole, and if you're curious about where this "school choice" nonsense comes from, look down — he was a little guy — and say hello to the source of so much dogmatic free-market junk, Milton Friedman.

His "The Role of Government in Education," published more than 50 years ago, framed the issue and coined the vocabulary, and the central idea is the same now as it ever was: Voucher programs that allow parents to use public money to pay for private schools make schools better through competition. Our friends at ALEC have done the legalistic and legislative heavy lifting for all 50 states. All free-marketeer lawmakers need to do is introduce the bill and ram it on through. And so they are — in New Jersey, Louisiana, and elsewhere.

Rob Schofield of N.C. Policy Watch does a nice job of illustrating not just the problems with H.B. 944 but the essential flaw in the reasoning behind it:

One issue that, sadly, has yet to be aired explicitly during the discussion over vouchers is the matter of what their introduction would portend for the future of the relationship between citizens and their government …

In the modern conservative worldview, all human relationships are driven by the interactions of the marketplace. Many of these ideologues have genuinely come to believe that humans have been commanded by the Almighty to pursue their own self-interest in virtually all matters of economic and social interaction and that when they do, the “invisible hand” will somehow lead us all to the best possible (or, at least, the most just) societal result.

Hence the notion that North Carolina’s education ills can be cured by giving parents the kinds of “choices” afforded to “customers” and forcing schools to compete for their “business.” It’s really a quite remarkable and coldly Darwinian argument …

More than that — it reduces education to just another commodity, like canned creamed corn or wood screws. If you peruse Friedman's interviews, he continually compares public schools to government auto manufacturers or grocery stores — the idea being that government-run anything is by definition communistic, and competition will automatically make education "better."

Well, not necessarily. That presupposes that parents will always make rational choices about which schools are "best," and that clearly isn't the case, not with these kinds of people roaming the countryside. The customer service model of education promotes not quality as much as customer satisfaction — and plenty of customers in places like South Carolina are satisfied with this.

Besides, the N.C. legislature has done plenty of deck-stacking by cutting public education funding year after year after year. It's a mind-numbing reversal of decades of public policy that literally built modern-day North Carolina, as former state schools superintendent Mike Ward argues (and to whom I'll give the last word):

Just as the nation took notice during our impressive period of investment and progress, the nation will witness the backslide. High-end employers and investors will take their money elsewhere; no one wants to send their dollars to places that are weak on educational support and noted for social strife. The racial and economic divisions in our communities will deepen. Opportunity for those living at the margins will shrink. That’s not just wrong, that’s bad wrong.

This is not the North Carolina we have been or want to be.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest