In the past two years, more Americans across the nation have been pulling at threads of a Gordian knot, revealing why public schools have failed so many. Alas, it’s an endless tangle of reasons.
Some school choice advocates believe we have found the proverbial sword of Alexander to cut this knot once and for all: allow public funds to follow students to whatever school they choose. Like a backpack full of money, the funds follow the student.
We’ve rallied behind the banner of “Fund Students, Not Systems,” and the idea has gained lots of traction over the past couple of years, becoming a leading issue in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race. Unfortunately, that slogan alone is not the great knot-cutting stroke many want it to be. It is only the first hack that begins fraying the knot. The idea of taxpayer money following its allocated students certainly makes more sense than the money staying in the students’ public district but suddenly handing families thousands of government dollars brings its own problems.
In a perfect world, the money follows the students, allowing for the best fit between families and schools. The education system would function more like a service in the free market, where the best teachers are paid for their abilities and accomplishments, bad teachers are fired, good schools attract students and grow, and bad schools shut down—specialized schools meeting many types of needs for many types of students with many types of life goals. This elevator pitch for school choice is based on sound but simplified economic logic.
Sadly, the real world never matches our ideals, and redistributing thousands of taxpayer dollars a year to millions of families will open up new opportunities for mismanagement, fraud, and other issues. Most families would still do what’s best for their child, and many schools and teachers would work hard to ensure their students are educated. Most would probably improve because of increased accountability, competition, and parental investment. Even so, consider just a few hypothetical examples from a realistic world:
- Some schools would consolidate to share costs and maximize profits.
- Tech companies would create a one-size-fits-all, easy-to-pass curriculum with minimal human interaction or learning, charging families their voucher amounts for licensing and credits.
- Industries, religious groups, sports leagues, and others would create schools, collect the state money, provide poor education services by underpaid teachers, and create government-subsidized feeder systems.
- Inept or abusive parents would see the thousands a year they’re getting for “homeschooling” one kid, and find ways to bring more dollars into their home “school.”
- Similar to other entitlement programs, people will defraud the education funding system.
- Government bureaucrats would mismanage or embezzle millions directed towards families.
- Petty tyrants in federal and state governments would deny funding or accreditation to schools or licensure to staff unless they met political criteria, especially those outspoken against the government.
- To counteract all this abuse, innumerable laws would be passed, with a large, expensive and invasive bureaucracy established to enforce the laws. People would still find ways around those laws.
So why still push for school choice, knowing the problems such a system might create? In cutting at the Gordian knot, the fray creates a mess of other problems. And why give this rhetorical ammunition to school choice detractors? Truth is, similar things already happen. Lobbyists, negligent parents, defrauders, politicized bureaucrats, backfiring laws, and perverse incentives already exist in our current education system
Famed economist Thomas Sowell said that “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” Breaking the government’s stranglehold, weakening the power of unions, giving parents choice, and localizing control outweigh the negatives, many of which are already baked into the government-funded cake.
The root problem isn’t who controls the funding; kicking the education dollars to the family doesn’t remove human nature from the equation. There’s still a temptation for fraud and misuse, magnified by millions of families. To truly improve our nation’s education and eliminate the misuse of tax dollars and government power, we need to eliminate government involvement in education entirely, both fiscal and regulatory. In removing the tax dollar, we create a need for direct family investment in education. A family that is directly financially invested in the education of their kids is far more invested in their education than a family that allows the government to play middleman. Statistically, homeschool families have shown this for years now, with homeschool students outscoring their public school counterparts, for private pennies on the tax dollar.
School choice is the first step in the right direction, but it can not be our finish line. It is the first hack but we must cut through the entirety of the Gordian knot. Let us consider what challenges and opportunities exist in a world without a government grip on education, both systemic and fiscal, and how we start addressing them. We may gain even more support from fence-sitters if we can show we’re working on the next steps. When school-choice legislation gets passed, we should celebrate and then continue to look past that victory, carrying the momentum into a more accountable system.