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Monday, November 5, 2007
Almost a Dozen Reasons Honest and Intelligent People May Have for Voting Against Vouchers

On the day before Election Day I, who already voted for vouchers, do my best to find some reasons why good, honorable, intelligent people might want to vote against them -- as opposed to the false or deceptive reasons filling the mailboxes and airwaves of Utah.

If you have spent any time lately here at the blog, you have surely grasped that I am in favor of school vouchers, and I advocate voting for Utah Citizens' Referendum 1. I have attempted to explain the program and to evaluate the arguments on both sides. I have expressed wonder that the most common opposition arguments we're hearing -- or that are appearing in my mailbox at least once a day just now -- are nearly all outright falsehoods, half-truths, or at least seriously misleading. Where, I have wondered, are the truthful, legitimate arguments against Referendum 1? Why might conscientious, intelligent voters, who actually bother to learn about the legislation and think deeply about the issues, and who therefore see through the flimsy arguments in the ads and on the flyers -- why might they still vote against the referendum?

The argument that voucher schools are unaccountable doesn't fly (see my discussion of accountability here). The objection that vouchers take money from the public schools doesn't work in the form we're hearing it (see my discussion of three big buckets of money here). The idea that vouchers will help only the rich is just evidence that one doesn't know what the legislation actually says (see my discussion of vouchers and the rich here). And the variation that says the vouchers won't actually be enough to help most families only works with a combination of bad data about the cost of private schools, a misunderstanding of markets, and bad logic. (See the previous link, and also a parable and another discussion here.)

I've been learning as I go, just like you. Along the way, I have done my best in my limited time to ferret out good arguments for voting against vouchers. The voucher opposition hasn't made it easy to find these kernels of grain among all the chaff they are pumping into the discussion. But I think there are some reasons. I think they are severely outweighed by solid arguments in favor of vouchers, but serious people might disagree. Are we ready?

Radical: Not Far Enough

I imagine there are a few voters who will vote against the referendum because the voucher program doesn't go far enough. Perhaps they think that the money for the voucher student should be taken away from the public schools, not left there -- which is politically untenable in an imperfect world -- or that the public schools should be abolished altogether. Or they think that the voucher amount for wealthy families should drop to zero, not to $500. These radicals may not appreciate that in a legislative world you get what you can get now, and come back for more later, rather than failing altogether because you insist (perhaps out of misdirected moral stubbornness) on getting everything exactly as you want it all at once.

A lot of voucher opponents actually believe that we who support vouchers really want to destroy the public schools, but that is silly propaganda. One state PTA official -- current or former, depending on which report you read -- said publicly that we are servants of Satan, and I'm fairly certain she isn't the only one who thinks that, even if it is rather childish to believe that anyone who disagrees with you politically must be evil. Yet somehow I think the best reason to vote for vouchers is to improve the public schools.

In any case, these arguments from the radical right are not the ones that interest me most.

The Year Six Argument

The so-called mitigation monies -- this business of the public schools being able to keep the money for the students who leave for private schools -- expire after five years. One might reasonable see this as difficult or even destructive, a time bomb of sorts. The argument would be that some public school infrastructure and other costs are fixed, whether there are slightly more or slightly fewer students, so that receiving the same money per student for fewer students will damage the public schools' ability to serve those fewer students. It's an economy of scale argument, at least in part.

My response to this argument is: Unless there is a mass exodus from public to private schools, which I doubt -- many public schools are almost as good as their advocates believe, enough so that the Rodebacks are not likely to use any vouchers -- the public schools will still be growing at a relatively rapid rate. The Utah student population is projected to grow about 30 percent in ten years; even half that would be a challenge. (Of course, you may not believe the projections, either . . .)

Even if there will be significant movement to private schools, it does not follow that the public schools will not or cannot improve themselves in a competitive world -- among other things, improving their ability to compete.

The Secularist Argument

There are serious people who believe that religious principles and the people who hold them are harmful to democratic society and should not be welcome even in political debates, let alone in the classroom. For them, perhaps, the relentless and inevitable mediocrity of a monopolistic public school system is not too high a price to pay to minimize the risk that some child might actually absorb religious knowledge or principles in a voucher-funded private school.

I don't happen to agree, but you can see how people who think this would want to vote against the referendum. In fact, if you have some knowledge of history -- or even of our war on Islamic Fascists -- I think you have to admit that a lot of evil is and has been done in the name of religion. This truth leads some people, as I view the matter, to want to throw the baby (religious principles) out with the bath water (religious tyranny).

Union (or Bureaucracy) Above All

I think we can all understand that there are some people who are very committed to their teachers union or their government education bureaucracy. It may pay their salaries. Perhaps it helped them in some important way in the past. Or they may simply have invested much labor and care in the union or the bureaucracy, and they feel the loyalty that naturally results and are convinced of their organization's virtues and necessity. Vouchers are certainly a great and very direct threat to the unions and the bureaucracy; one can understand opposition on this basis.

But we can also understand why we're not hearing or seeing ad campaigns urging us to oppose vouchers, because they're bad for the unions and the bureaucracy. In fact, proponents are advocating the referendum as an important blow against the power of the unions and the bureaucracy -- an argument which clearly has more traction, at least in Utah.

Market Mistrust

You don't have to be a Marxist to mistrust the free market. You simply have to believe that economic or educational equality is worth sacrificing significant freedom, or that the fate of the "have-nots" is an unanswerable indictment of the free market. I myself much prefer freedom to equality, and I believe both the quantity and the fate of the "have-nots" is worse without freedom (a longer discussion for another day). But I have no illusions about these being universal opinions. I'm not even sure they are majority opinions in contemporary America.

The virtue of vouchers turns on the free market's capability to provide an excellent education outside the public schools, and the market's tendency to improve all players through competition. In our context, this would include the public schools. Some who passionately assert the public schools' excellence also fear their extinction if vouchers introduce a modest amount of competition into the educational market. (Some who say this may be more cynical, not actually believing it, but thinking the rest of us gullible enough to believe it.)

If you are deeply suspicious of the free market or believe it to be the active embodiment of evil, I can see why you would vote against Referendum 1. But it appears to me that believing this requires a certain resistance to abundant evidence that competition tends to lower prices and increase quality at the same time.

Division and Fragmentation

Here and there -- not often in recent months -- I have heard or read the argument that introducing vouchers into education will further divide or fragment society, by emphasizing the divide between public and private school students. I really don't see how the divide can get more pronounced than it already is, with relatively rich people tending to send their children to private schools, where presumably they get a better education, and the rest of us being consigned to public schools, with -- how can I put this gently? -- their slightly less excellent product.

This divide is much less clear (if it still exists at all) in higher education, where a student is free to take his Pell Grant to the public or private institution of his choice.

Moreover, the protest I have heard once or twice lately, that the voucher issue is dividing Utahns, and that this is a bad thing, seems naive. Unity is neither safe nor desirable in a democratic society. On most issues, it is not achievable. We value the improvement all positions undergo in the process of debate, and we certainly are not generally inclined to sacrifice freedom on the altar of unity. Disagreement does not necessarily breed hostility or incivility.

Higher Taxes Are Better

Don't laugh. Some people believe this.

Consumerism is evil. Financial inequality is evil. Freedom itself is evil, because people often use their freedom destructively. Experts can spend money in the people's behalf more wisely than the people can.

There are serious people who believe these things. There is a case to be made for each (mostly an unconvincing case, in my view), and people make it with a straight face. So it isn't a virtue in everyone's mind that vouchers are likely to diminish the likely tax burden of rapid school growth.

You can see why this particular argument has no role in the anti-voucher campaign.

Parents Cannot Be Trusted

At least, they cannot be trusted to make educational decisions for their children. If you believe that credentialed "experts" are better decision-makers in the matter of a child's education, then vouchers, which empower parents, are a bad thing.

People actually believe this, too, though I do not. I have experience in government and in academia, but I don't trust the bureaucrats or the scholars to make decisions for my individual children. Too often they have told me that they cannot worry about the welfare of a particular child, because they have so many thousands or tens of thousands of children to worry about.

On the other hand, though I had good parents, I see the horrors of bad or negligent parenting on a regular basis. I understand, at least in part, why some voucher opponents would not want to empower parents. But I would prefer an approach in which we empower parents generally and handle exceptions, rather than refusing to empower any parents at all because some of them are bad. It's a little like letting people drive and arresting the drunk drivers we can catch, rather than banning all driving because some people will drive drunk.

I'm not Good Enough to Play in a Better League

. . . and I cannot or don't want to improve.

If you are a teacher, and you believe (correctly or otherwise) that you are a low-quality teacher, you should probably vote against vouchers. If voucher-induced competition actually improves the public schools, they might not want you any more. They might acquire the ability to show you the door, leaving you to a career of telemarketing or flipping burgers.

It's an understandable position. If you're in it, I suggest you fight for that union for all you're worth, because it is your best friend -- assuming, that is, that the same energy wouldn't be better spent becoming a better teacher.


No, not that kind of evolution. You believe in some sort of social evolution (say, toward the welfare state), and you see that the chances of fully achieving it are much greater if the people don't know how government works, cannot think critically, and have real trouble with math, etc. You think the best change for spreading these flaws is under the current, declining, monopolistic public school system. (I think you're right about that one.)

In other words, the end justifies the means. Good luck with that one; this is precisely what many of us are fighting against.

A Different Sort of Democracy than I Believe In

You believe firmly in the concept, if not the actual execution, of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). You believe in it because you think it is wrong for some students (the gifted, the hard-working) to get ahead of other students (the lazy and those without academic gifts). If Jack does better than Johnny, Johnny will feel bad, and that is undemocratic.

If you think this way -- if NCLB in your mind is really No Child Gets Ahead, and you like that -- then you don't need me to tell you to vote against vouchers.

For what it's worth, C. S. Lewis warned us about people who think as you do, in his little gem entitled "Screwtape Proposes a Toast." Good reading.

Back to the Bad Reasons

All of the above are reasons why some people of good conscience, who actually understand what is proposed, will vote against vouchers. I disagree with all these, and if they are yours you may not feel that I did them justice, but I tried. At least I can see some good will and intelligence in people who might espouse them. I admit that I can also see why voucher opponents aren't using these arguments; they wouldn't play well enough in Utah. I hate to say it, but the anti-voucher crowd is more likely to win with its campaign of lies and misdirection than by using arguments which would be honest and valid in the mouths of thinking people of good will.

Therefore, let us return for a moment, in conclusion, to some of the bad reasons for voting for vouchers. They're the ones getting the lion's share of the air time (literally and figuratively). You will quickly see that I am not trying to treat them kindly. (I don't mind people disagreeing with me, except when they do it for foolish or dishonest reasons like these.) 

  • You're a member of the PTA, and the PTA told you vouchers are evil.
  • You're a member of a teachers union, and the teachers union told you vouchers are evil.
  • People are saying that private schools wouldn't be accountable for quality or use of funds, and you're too lazy to learn the truth.
  • People are saying that vouchers only help the rich, and you're too lazy to learn the truth.
  • People are saying that vouchers take money away from the public schools, and you're too lazy to learn the truth.
  • You trust bureaucrats more than you trust parents to make sound decisions for the education of an individual child. (Oops, did I list that one as a good reason, too?)
  • They told you class sizes will increase in the public schools, and you're too lazy to learn the truth.
  • They told you per-pupil spending would decrease, and you're too lazy to do the math.
  • They told you vouchers won't be big enough to help the people who need them, and you haven't grasped the virtues of reading my blog yet.

Okay, that's enough of that. Tomorrow will be interesting and momentous. Don't forget to vote. And if you must vote against vouchers, do it for a reason with some truth and intelligence in it. Do it with honor.

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