The Question of School Choice and ESA’s…

Any sort of legislation dealing with education, particularly funding, inevitably gins up quite a lot of controversy.  Jason Nelson’s Education Savings Account proposal (HB 3398) is no exception; it would allow parents to direct how the money relating to their child’s education is to be spent, whether it be private or online school.  The key here is choice.

And while this may be an imperfect solution to an endless problem, the spirit of the legislation is quite sound: in order to really fix (*) education, we have to introduce competition into the market.  As it stands now, public schools give us a mediocre product for a hideously high price, but are able to do so because they have a monopoly on affordable education.  This would never do in a competitive market.

About four to six thousand dollars would be put on a special debit card that would only be valid at state approved ‘vendors’ of education, curriculum, textbooks, etc.  If public schools are not the preferable option, then so be it.

Let’s examine a few of the objections:

OEA president Linda Hampton relies upon empty rhetoric: education savings accounts are “vouchers, a fancy word for vouchers… They take public dollars away from public schools, and every child deserves a great public education.”  It seems she is saying, every child deserves a public education, but nothing more.  

From the Oklahoma Watchdog story, she continues:

But Hampton points out that removing a few students from a bunch of classrooms hurts all the students that remain in the public schools.

“Whether a class has 10 children, 15 children or 30, you still have to build classrooms, pay the electric bill, buy the school bus and hire cafeteria staff,” she said, noting that Oklahoma is 49th in public school spending but schools still maintain a high level of quality.

Yet meanwhile we complain (and certainly it is a legitimate complaint) of overcrowding; indeed many schools here in the metroplex are bursting at the seams and it seems like there’s an elementary school on every block.  If the overcrowding problem is alleviated by this savings account system, it would perhaps save many school districts from the considerable expense of building new schools.

But Hampton said public schools are like other government institutions that only work if everyone is contributing.

“That’s very slippery slope,” she said. “I don’t have anyone in prison but that doesn’t mean my tax dollars shouldn’t support prisons. Part of reason you collect tax dollars is to pay for a common good. You can’t pick and choose what your tax dollars will go for.”

That argument is a slippery slope!  I fail to see how the public schools, as they operate now, are contributing to any sort of public good.  Effectively they have become glorified babysitting services, but one that has a vicious monopoly.  For the record, your tax dollars should not be going to any sort of ‘common good’ as that concept is abstract and varies to everyone.  No, from your tax dollars you receive some sort of utility in return.  A road, fire fighting services, the education of your child.  When one no longer feels that he is receiving the proper utility from his contributions, taxation becomes in the words of a popular meme, theft.

In addition to these arguments from Linda Hampton, the talking points on the “#ESAisNotOK” are rather amusing:

Vouchers will DIVERT as much as $2 billion over the next 14 years from public schools to those who have always chosen private school or homeschool.

Exactly!  Is it wrong that people should expect some utility from the taxes they already pay?

Vouchers LACK ACCOUNTABILITY for taxpayer dollars and student achievement.

Oh yes, because the public schools have been the absolute champion of managing public funds and ensuring student achievement.

Vouchers will REDIRECT limited resources from the true schools of choice — the public schools that serve more than 90 percent of Oklahoma’s school-age children.

Public schools are the true schools of “choice” only because they have been able to maintain this wasteful monopoly.  If public schools are really that great, if they were really the “schools of choice,” then parents will choose to keep their students there and none of this would be a problem.  But obviously, when they have to fight to retain this monopoly, it does not really mean that they are the “schools of choice.”

Oklahoma has school CHOICE. Oklahoma has family-friendly transfer laws. More than 40,000 students transfer to a school in another district, while several thousand students transfer to a different school within their district. More than 80,000 high school students choose to participate in Career Tech classes.

But it isn’t really choice, just the illusion of choice.  It all amounts to the same thing, no matter which district you are in: mediocre public education which, if my own personal experience is an indication, sucks the will to learn out of the student, and turns us into bodies that fill chairs.  It is the same in every district in the state.

A majority of parents OPPOSE using taxpayer dollars to pay for private school.

Very well then, those parents don’t have to partake and can keep their tax dollars going to the public schools.  But do the parents that want real utility for their tax money have any say?

Do taxpayers really want to subsidize private schools?  If vouchers are approved this year, every student starting pre-k this fall could attend 13 years pf private school at taxpayer expense.

By 2029, every private school student would be eligible for a voucher without ever attending a public school.

It is interesting to read how they have framed these arguments.  I will give them the benefit of the doubt; they must have simply forgotten that the parents of those students are the ones paying the taxes, and because it is the fruit of their labor they should be able to say, this is how I want my child educated.

Besides, and most importantly of all, what is the real goal here?  Is it to educate our students, our children, or is it to perpetuate the monopoly that the public schools have on affordable education?

Nelson’s proposal, while not perfect would amount to some sort of meaningful reform.

(*) I use the term “fix” very loosely.  There is nothing that a legislature can do to really fix the problem, as it really has to do with our attitudes towards education itself.  But such philosophical ramblings aren’t really pertinent here, especially as I have included them in past blog entries: here, and here.

Gary Johnson and Business Discrimination

Last Friday, the first televised Libertarian debate aired; and after many libertarians (myself included) were scratching my heads wondering what Gary Johnson was doing up there.

Especially during one exchange over the right of businesses to deny service to those they disagree with.

Petersen: Well, i just wanted to say that, you know, that yes, Governor Johnson has stated that he does side with him [Bernie Sanders] on social issues, and we had a big garfufel in Oregon last week because Governor Johnson has stated that he believes that bakers should be forced to bake wedding cakes for people that they disagree with, homosexual couples, and this is a big problem because he’s running for president as a libertarian…

Stossel: Is he correct in quoting you?

Johnson: Yes, but I think that if you discriminate on the basis of religion, I think that is a black hole.  Look, I think you should be able to discriminate on stink or you’re not wearing shoes or whatever, but I’ll tell you what, if we discriminate on the basis of religion, to me that’s doing harm to a big class of people…

Petersen: Should a Jewish baker be required to bake a Nazi wedding cake?

Johnson: …I think that Muslims right now in this country would be banned by all sorts of businesses right now because it would be the popular thing…

Stossel: Should the Jewish baker have to bake the cake for the Nazi wedding?

Johnson: That’s, uh, that would be my contention, yes…

This is concerning, seeing how it is coming from the leading libertarian candidate.   It shows a huge misunderstanding of one of the most basic, foundational principles of libertarianism:  the power of a free market.

Is it right that businesses discriminate?  Not necessarily.  But do they have that right?  Unquestionably.

We would never question the right of a consumer to pick and choose which businesses to patronize based on his opinions about that business.  So why would we question the right of a business owner to do the same?

Especially since the market has a great mechanism to prevent this.

Most of the market seems to oppose discrimination; and thus will cease to patronize businesses that are guilty of the practice.  So the business will be obliged to either change the practice, or go out of business.  And if the consumers continue to support businesses that discriminate, then it really must not be much of a problem – after all, the final authority should be the consumer.

We certainly don’t need the government to come in and do what the market can do well enough by itself.

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The entire first part of the debate can be seen here, for those that missed it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr9Vr5p-8Fs