Monday, November 5, 2007

On Utah's Citizen's State Referendum 1

Reasonable people can and do disagree about school voucher programs. Hell, my mother and I have gone back and forth on this with me being for them and her against them. We agree to disagree. Fair enough.

Via Cato-at-Liberty, I discovered that voters in Utah will be voting on a school choice program. I wish the advocates, referred to, in perjorative fashion, as "Radical Friedmanites" by a left-wing knee jerk reaction on the Salt Lake Tribune's editorial page that reads like an editorial but is short on substance and perhaps a bit long on rhetoric.

The editorial grossly mischaracterizes the school voucher plan as being offensive to the Constitution by routing taxpayer funds to private institutions through "the laundering medium" known as vouchers. Cute, but wrong. The Supreme Court upheld Ohio's Pilot Project Scholarship Program, a school choice program, in Zelman v Simmons-Harris on the basis that the program did not offend the Establishment Clause. I think the majority's opinion was correct and the reasoning sound, and most of it applies here:

1. The purpose of the program is to provide educational assistance to the poor - a very valid secular purpose.

2. The program itself is neutral to religion, as it focuses strictly on private choice. No one or group of religions are favored or disfavored.

3. In fact, it can be argued that religious institutions are disincentivized to take school vouchers, as the amounts that they receive from individuals receive a smaller amount of funds relative to the higher tuition rates they typically charge. With this disincentive in place, it almost makes it hard to argue with a straight face that an epidemic of taxpayer funds flowing from public coffers to private coffers would occur to the alarming degree school choice opponents make it seem.

I would also like to note that the Salt Lake Tribune's editorial laments the fact that under a system of school choice, private schools would be less accountable to taxpayers, and that their teachers would not have to be certified and the testing would be less rigorous. Call me a skeptic, but when I see teacher certification being used as an argument against school choice, I see this less for the benefit of the students receiving the education and more for the teachers unions who have used the power of the state to achieve its position as a protected cartel, one that would struggle to survive had it been left to the forces of free market competition.

As far as accountability is concerned, a system of choice makes everyone equally accountable, as now public and private schools alike will be incentivized to respond to the needs and demands of those they are trying to serve, or else they will take their vouchers and go elsewhere. Is there a better form of accountability?

As Andrew Coulson points out in the Cato piece, many critics of school choice view the problem in terms of social conflict. I also note that social conflict is the predominant emphasis in the dissent in Zelman that was authored by Justice Breyer. Although I may have some sympathy in wanting to alleviate social conflict, a recent Cato Institute policy paper on public education demonstrates that public schools are a breeding ground for social conflict (more research from Cato here)

Unfortuneately, the Salt Lake Tribune has no interest in rationally debating the issue. Rather, it has to rely on misinformation, distortions and smears (the whole Milton Friedman - radical nonsense) to attempt to maintain an institution that has not served the children well and will continue to fail in this respect. After all, should we not be looking out in their best interest? They are our future.

2 comments:

KipEsquire said...

Utah is a terrible test case for two interrelated reasons:

1. The whole point of the voucher program is to empower parents who are less than thrilled with Mormon-controlled school districts. So they're now going to subject it to a ratification vote by -- Mormons?

2. Truth be told, Utah public schools tend to be very good -- because school taxes and budgets are very high, and populations are very homogeneous (to say the least). So any propoganda along the lines of "it's a threat to the schools" will find a receptive audience.

The vote is going to be a wipeout.

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