It’s Your Money, Redux
Now that the Supreme Court has managed to more-or-less get the private school voucher ruling right (and without intending to endorse the voucher concept in any way, see Getting Education Reform Right), I want to propose a simple way of finessing the remaining obstacles to the rescue of indigent children from their education industry exploiters. Despite the High Court’s acknowledgement of no federal Constitutional hindrances, the victims of the public education monopoly still face state Constitutional prohibitions against “public” financing of sectarian schools which serve to thwart the critical freedom to choose from “all available educational options” that is the heart of the voucher concept.
Significantly, not only do such sectarian schools typically offer the highest quality-per-dollar performance and the vast bulk of the immediately available enrollment slots to which these victims have geographical access, for many they are the only operations offering the desired product at any price. It is, after all, for many parents specifically the sectarian character of those schools that makes them a meaningful alternative to the public school system from which escape is sought.
Clearly, little good would be accomplished by merely moving children from their local public school into an ideologically identical private knockoff-- necessarily featuring fuzzy math, self-esteem classes, moral relativism and the rest. It would be cheaper, of course, but the money is not the point-- it is the quality of the education that is at issue. But, while the complete solution for this problem must wait out the often slow and difficult Constitutional amendment process, an interim approach could yield positive results almost immediately.
That approach is simply this: every tax return or statement produced in regard to an education-funding revenue source, such as property-tax assessments or state income-tax forms, etc., is provided with a check-box with which the tax payer to whose money the document relates can indicate whether or not they mind their funds being spent at a sectarian school. (Sales tax revenues can readily be assigned by pro-ration based upon other document check-offs). By means of this checkbox, two different educational funding pools are created, before the money becomes “public”. Upon application for a voucher parents would indicate their desire for redemption by a sectarian school and their voucher would be so endorsed and debited against the appropriate fund until it was exhausted. Distribution would be subject, if necessary, to lottery; but parents would have an automatic claim on as many endorsed vouchers as are fully funded by their own taxes.
Supporters of the Constitutional prohibitions must be given their due: it’s clearly wrong to distribute-- undifferentiated-- coercively extracted funds to ideological institutions and thus commit the crime of forcing someone to finance the dissemination of views with which he disagrees (in light of which all public school funding should immediately cease until at least my part of it has been separated out).
But the reality is that there are no “public” funds, only an aggregate of private funds. If an individual citizen contributing some of those funds indicates that he wishes his money to be available for distribution as vouchers which might end up at sectarian schools, then that portion of the aggregate (less administrative expenses) should be so disbursed.
We must remember that the [possibly legitimate] public purpose being addressed is the education of indigent children, euphemistic Constitutional pronouncements regarding “free” public education for all notwithstanding. (The education of children whose parents are paying school taxes at least equal to its cost is financed by those parents. The education being provided is not “free” for them.) The marginalization or suppression of traditional sectarian education is NOT a legitimate public purpose; such things are the illegitimate private purposes of competing interests which are realized under the mantle of that benign impulse of public charity, and through the callously hypocritical exploitation of a legal blunt instrument (the sectarian funding prohibition) clumsily engineered to repair its flaws. (While the pathologies of the socialist and nihilist sects that infest the welfare schools are beyond the scope of this commentary, it is appropriate to recognize their nature and their dominance, so as to understand that we are already spending “public” money at sectarian schools. Similarly, I decline to address herein the issue of the basic legitimacy of the welfare schools themselves; see Save the Children, Save the Future for some thoughts on that subject.).
There are, of course, long-standing and continuing precedents for such earmarking options; this notion simply expands the horizons of the concept, which is one that should be much more widely embraced in any case. There are any number of controversial issues teetering on fine (or at least intractably disputed) lines of Constitutional principle which could be defused or put to rest entirely by such means. We need not be always presented with a Hobson’s choice between all or nothing.
The Supremes have made an important contribution toward remediating the “public” school tragedy with their analysis of the First Amendment issue presented to them, but the typical state Constitutional issue is far more knobbly, involving prohibition language explicitly directed at sectarian schools, rather than any widely misunderstood and interpretively nuanced “establishment” clause. Short of a solution like the one proposed here, many well-meaning state legislative rescue attempts will still suffer judicial defeats during the arduous amending of the Constitution, and untold millions of children will continue to be irrevocably damaged.
An earmarking approach like this, though admittedly requiring some outside-the-box thinking, can be implemented either by a state’s legislature or its executive, and in most cases probably without the acquiescence of the other branch. It would itself, of course, promptly be challenged in court, but the consequent judicial clarifications of the provenance of tax money, the true character of welfare education, and the motives of those opposed to choice would be edifying.
The education of children should be strictly a parental concern, and the state has no more proper business in it than it has in the provision of any other welfare protection to wards of the state, in most aspects of which society is content to provide a stipend for the necessities without micromanaging the individual choices so financed. In this area particularly, in which the financing citizen is also in many cases the consumer of the service, and the service in such cases involves what will be put into the head of his own child, a maximum possible respect for that citizen’s preferences should obtain. As Jefferson said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” So, too, the denial of a man’s wish to support what he does believe.
© Peter E. Hendrickson