Saturday, August 18, 2007

What About Vouchers?

My friend Eric Schansberg has written a brief defense of school vouchers at his blog. Eric is a Christian libertarian and an economist by training. (He also has a great blog you should check out and has written three books I highly commend.) As with many libertarian and conservative supporters of vouchers, Eric believes a voucher program would protect the religious freedom of parents and students, result in taxpayer savings, and ultimately improve educational services by breaking the monopoly of state schools.

Is it true? What are we to think of vouchers?

In the early 20th century, the socialist Fabian Society came out strongly in favor of state subsidies for Christian schools in England. After passage of the Education Act of 1902, Graham Wallas resigned from the board in protest, believing that the society had forfeited its progressive principles by supporting legislation which subsidized denominational schools.

George Bernard Shaw rebuked Wallas saying, "Nothing will more quickly destroy independent Christian schools than state aid: their freedom and independence will soon be compromised, and before long their faith."

Writing later, Shaw let the cat out of the bag. His support for state-financed private and religious education was little more than a ploy to undermine family authority:
In the case of young children, we have gone far in our interference with the old Roman rights of parents. For nine mortal years the child is taken out of its parents hands for most of the day, and thus made a State school's child instead of a private family child…to put it quite frankly and flatly, the Socialist State, as far as I can guess, will teach the child the multiplication table, but will not only not teach it the Church Catechism, but if the State teachers find that the child's parents have been teaching it the Catechism otherwise than as a curious historical document, the parents will be warned that if they persist the child will be taken out of their hands and handed over to the Lord Chancellor, exactly as the children of Shelley were when their maternal grandfather denounced his son-in-law as an atheist.

As night follows day, state aid will lead to state domination. A variety of legal precedents make clear that even a remote cause could vindicate statist controls. For example, universities are subject to Title IX "anti-discrimination" statues if any of their students so much as take financial aid. Remember, too, that not so long ago the federal government asserted control over restaurants because salt in the salt shaker was considered part of interstate commerce.

Allowing the camel's nose into the tent via a voucher program would ultimately yield to the state complete power over curriculum decisions and matters of accreditation. But who is appointed to accredit a Christian school? Is this legitimately the realm of the state? No, the state is a ministry of justice (Rom. 13:1-4). It is God's Word that is the standard of certification, and the state usurps God's prerogative when it claims the right of accreditation.

As a practical matter, would vouchers decrease the cost of education by making services more efficient? Have Medicare and Medicaid decreased the cost of health care? Have Pell Grants, the GI Bill and other forms of federal aid decreased the cost of a college education?

Similarly, it is likely that vouchers would increase the cost of private education. Dumping money willy nilly into schools that by and large operate frugally and efficiently compared to government schools is simply a recipe for educational inflation.

Finally, there is a question as to whether vouchers work. Educational writer Jay Matthews recently wrote up a study of housing vouchers that should give us pause:
Researchers examining what happened to 4,248 families who were randomly given or denied federal housing vouchers to move out of their high-poverty neighborhoods found no significant difference about seven years later between the [educational] achievement of children who moved to more middle-class neighborhoods and those who didn't.

Although some children had more stable lives and better academic results after the moves, the researchers said, on average, there was no improvement. Boys and brighter students appeared to have more behavioral problems in their new schools, the studies found.

So there were no educational gains. The only accomplishment educationally from housing vouchers was the moving of discipline problems from one school to another.

Matthews fails to note that educational success is primarily connected to innate intelligence, which the Education Department can't do much about just yet, and a stable family life, which helps to instill the virtues of hard-work and discipline while attaching value to the importance of education.

The bigger problem I have is that my reading of Scripture effectively precludes state-sponsored and financed schools and primarily leaves education in the hands of the family. Education must be as to the Lord, and if either church or state are primarily responsible to provide education they will still instill fealty and subjugation to an institution rather than God. (As an aside, I have no opposition to Christian schools, but would argue that they should be separate from ecclesiastical control. In other words they should be extensions of the family, not the church.)

In "The Messianic Character of American Education," Rushdoony put it this way: "Wherever church or state have claimed a prior, or any, jurisdiction over every other sphere of human activity or institution, there has been, with the realization of their claim, a steady diminution of liberty and the substitution of bureaucracy for law. The emancipation of education from ecclesiastical control was thus a major advance in liberal education, but a truly liberal education must also be free of the state, from its support or control."

God has made parents stewards of children, to mold and shape. Our children, says the Psalmist, “are a heritage from the Lord,” indeed, “the fruit of the womb is a reward.” We are called to elicit from our children those things that are pleasing to God. Ultimately, they belong to Him, and that is why Christian education is imperative. The goal then of education for the Christian is to glorify God and to free man. Freedom is ultimately only found in Christ, thus education must place Him at the center of all things.

Ultimately, we desire that our children become Christians and that the Holy Spirit uses our efforts toward that end. At the same time, we do not see that ALONE as the goal of “Christian” education, for “by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy" (Col. 1:15-18).

Education must be Chistocentric, for in the falling rain and the rotation of the earth we see the power and supremacy of God. In the beauty of a Shakespearean sonnet or a Bach concerto we glimpse God’s glory. In the narrative of history we take note of the merciful providence of God. In mathematics we see the order of God. In government we glimpse the justice of God. So our duty is to ensure that our children are not taken captive "through hollow and deceptive philosophy," but that they learn to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (Col. 2:8, I Cor. 10:5).

I say again, God has placed education in the hands of the family primarily, not the state or the church. I recall Doug Wilson once saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that "We are responsible for what our children learn, whether we teach it to them or not." Reading through Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6 I am always struck by the fact that I am responsible for what my children are taught. That by no means implies that I must teach them everything. However, should I choose to delegate certain things to the church or school, I am still ultimately responsible.

All of life, including education, has an inescapably religious and ethical component. For the Christian, divine revelation is our authoritative source, and from Scripture we learn that education must be theocentric, with the glory of God being the ultimate objective. Therefore, education that is either statist (advancing the interests of the state) or ecclesiocentric (advancing the cause of the church) is problematic. Education must ultimately be under the authority of parents, acting as God’s trustees on behalf of their children.

Would vouchers ultimately strengthen families by providing money to them directly and enhancing the educational choices and opportunities for their children? I think more likely the consequence would be the further leveling of all educational alternatives, leaving fewer choices for Christian parents.


Blogger Shamgar said...

An Excellent post Darrel. I actually have one of Eric's books, and it is quite good. I too would heartily disagree with a School vouchers for many of the reasons you listed here (and now I have a few more I hadn't considered. Thank you)

Your comments on the Church run schools is very intriguing. It's not an area I'd given much thought to because of being too busy opposing the state. One of my big soap boxes is being wary of the Pendulum that we are so often subject to. To date, I've endorsed homeschooling as the first, best option - but obviously not in a 'this is the only right way' mode. I like Montessori style schools, and in fact my oldest will be going to one this fall that is very much an extension of the family authority, a few hours a day 3 days a week. Obviously the next best option.

I have been kind of ambivalent about church run private schools. (Excepting, of course, catholic schools for obvious reasons) My own church runs a private school. They do a pretty good job of keeping parents strongly involved. Both through their participation in school oversight, in-school events, etc. It is generally viewed as a ministry to the parents and children in our community, with no requirement that even the teachers, let alone the children, attend our church to attend our school.

I think I am ok with that. However, your comments are well taken, and I think we should definitely be more cautious about our Church-run schools than we generally are. Another pendulum swing that is all too easily made. As my pastor says, Satan doesn't care which ditch he pushes us into (which side of the road) as long as we end up in one.

To the point of the post though, I am 100% against federal money in education. Whether through vouchers or otherwise. Your points regarding federal aid in college is spot on the money. Federal aid has been an absolute disaster, making it nearly impossible for the average family without federal aid, and huge loans that they end up paying back for most of their adult life.

(Which, of course, makes Ron Paul managing to send his kids to college w/out a penny of federal aid for exactly this reason so much more impressive)

12:40 PM  
Blogger Darrell said...

Do you know Eric? Which book did you read?

I think it is fine for churches to be heavily involved in education. In the OT, one of the primary Levitical roles was teaching. I think the church can, indeed should, support efforts of parents to get their kids out of state schools.

That being said, I think churches should assist and not necessarily run schools. The line is a fine one, but I think important. Ultimately, Christian schools are under God's authority, not under the thumbs of denominational leaders.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Shamgar said...

I don't know him personally, no. I know of him. A friend of mine who lives up there in IN told me about him. The book I have is "Turn neither Right nor Left".

I think I definitely agree regarding church run schools and denominational thumbs. It took me a minute to adjust my thinking. Being a baptist (and a reformed one at that) my views of local church autonomy and polity clouded my initial understanding of your point a little. :-)

8:43 AM  
Blogger Darrell said...

My boys are currently homeschooled, but my oldest attended a Christian pre-school and Kindergarten. Both were held in a church, but separate from it.

In my area, we also visited a Lutheran school and a classical Christian school housed in a Baptist church and considered another classical school at a Reformed Baptist church.

As you can see, I don't have any difficulty at all with churches assisting parents and families in educating their kids.

Indeed, Baptists should be building such institutions if we are going to call parents to remove their kids from state schools.

6:15 AM  
Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Darrell's opening wraps up with:
As with many libertarian and conservative supporters of vouchers, Eric believes a voucher program would protect the religious freedom of parents and students, result in taxpayer savings, and ultimately improve educational services by breaking the monopoly of state schools.

This is accurate as far as it goes, but I would have written it somewhat differently. These differences help me address some of his later concerns, so I'll go ahead and make the points here:

1.) I would say instead that "A voucher program would not necessarily compromise the religious freedom of parents and students significantly." (In other words, I would express this as a negative rather than a positive.) Vouchers might have the worrisome impact Darrell worries about-- for a variety of reasons-- but it is not necessary.

2.) I would add that "Greater competition would be an especial boon for those in the lower income classes, especially in the inner cities." In my view, this is a vital addition to the discussion, since we're talking about fighting against gross injustices propagated by the government against many of its most vulnerable citizens. One can easily make a Biblical case for Christian advocacy in such cases.

Following up on #1:
Darrell has listed reasons for concern and examples to boot. Indeed, government control over universities has resulted in regulation (albeit modest). But food stamps have not resulted in significant regulation impacting the operation of farms or grocery stores. (The government regulation of salt shakers seems to be independent of its provision of food vouchers to the poor.) Is regulation of education a potential realm for government involvement? Yes, we see that already. Does the probability of thicker regulation increase with government funding? Yes. Is it a given? No.

Along the same lines, the Shaw vs. Wallas debate in Darrell's opening is quite interesting, but only begs the question. Their positions resulted from their predictions about what the reform might do-- not what we know that it would actually do.

OK, so that's dealing with the government's angle. What about Christian schools? Would they be tempted? Some? Yes. Many? Maybe. All? No. How many? We don't know...Is the unknown cost of the temptation (which could be refused easily enough) worth the certain and tremendous gains to the rest of society, especially many of its most vulnerable members? I think so...

Darrell also expresses concerns about vouchers inflating the cost of education:
As a practical matter, would vouchers decrease the cost of education by making services more efficient? Have Medicare and Medicaid decreased the cost of health care? Have Pell Grants, the GI Bill and other forms of federal aid decreased the cost of a college education? Similarly, it is likely that vouchers would increase the cost of private education. Dumping money willy nilly into schools that by and large operate frugally and efficiently compared to government schools is simply a recipe for educational inflation.

The analogy doesn't work (or at the least, is weaker than supposed) since the larger issues with health care and government involvement are its subsidies for purchasing health insurance. Because health insurance comes through the firm and is not taxed, it is subsidized as a non-taxed form of compensation. In addition, firms often have slight economies of scale in purchasing insurance services in bulk. The result is, ironically, over-insurance for most of those who have it-- with too many services covered and co-pays/deductibles that are too low.

This may sound counter-intuitive at first. But consider the role that insurance usually plays; it generally protects the insured from rare, catastrophic events. In contrast, health insurance covers everything-- from allergy shots to cancer. By analogy, car insurance would provide coverage for oil changes, door dings, air filter and tire changes, etc. Imagine how expensive such "insurance" would be, how screwed up our market for car insurance would become, the tremendous paperwork generated by such "insurance", how expensive such routine services would become, etc.

Second, the cost of college education has increased, mostly, due to reduced subsidies from state government. Tuition is higher as a result. Thus, the cost to consumers has increased. But the overall cost-- to consumers and taxpayers-- has increased much more modestly.

Bottom line: vouchers, if constructed well, would put little if any upward pressure on costs-- especially compared to the current cost disincentives of operating a government monopoly!

In closing:
I agree with Darrell about ideal policy and about the Christian imperative that education would be largely/primarily a matter of the family. And I share his concerns about the potential for a connection between government funding and regulation. I think we both agree about the practical impact of vouchers in the market for education. But we differ on the magnitude of that concern-- and the desire to reach for "compromise" measures that would clearly do much good in the face of current injustice.

P.S. I've posted this here and in on SchansBlog.

P.S. #2: We homeschool too!

10:32 PM  

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