North Carolina routinely routes tax dollars to private service providers — both directly, in the form of Medicaid reimbursements and college tuition grants, as well as indirectly, in the form of public assistance that recipients spend themselves on food, clothing, shelter, and other goods.
No one seriously argues that allowing private hospitals to receive Medicaid funds is a scheme designed to destroy government-owned institutions such as UNC Health Care. No one seriously argues that making state and federal financial aid available to students at private colleges and universities is a scheme designed to destroy the UNC system. And no one seriously argues that it would be better for the government to produce and distribute most food, clothing, shelter, and child care for the poor instead of using the current system, which relies primarily on cash grants, food vouchers, housing vouchers, and child care vouchers. To the contrary, it is widely understood in all of these contexts that fostering competition among providers and giving clients a range of choices result in better outcomes at a lower cost.
So why do supposedly serious people claim that school vouchers are a scheme designed to destroy public education? Here are three potential explanations for your consideration.
The first one is that they simply haven’t thought about the issue long enough and thoroughly enough to spot their own inconsistencies. Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), housing vouchers, child care vouchers, and student financial aid have been around for decades. They’re familiar to us. On the other hand, while many European and Asian countries have provided government funding to private schools for decades or even centuries, that’s not been the norm here. So perhaps as familiarity with school choice rises, the criticism will abate.
The second potential explanation is that there is truly something about elementary and secondary education that makes it distinct from all other human services, including preschools and colleges — and thus distinctively unsuited for choice and competition. This would, at least, be a logically consistent position if its premises were correct. But they aren’t.
Thanks to the existence of school choice programs in various American jurisdictions and in countries around the world, there is now a large and compelling body of academic research demonstrating that, even after adjusting for differences in student populations and other factors, private schools often deliver better educational outcomes than public schools, particularly for disadvantaged students — and, more importantly, that increased parental choice and competition from private schools actually improve the performance of public schools.
A 2012 paper in the journal Economics of Education Review, for example, used spatial analysis to demonstrate that public schools in Mississippi tended to have higher test scores to the extent they were in close proximity to private competitors. Similar studies have found similar benefits from either private or charter school competition in many other places, including North Carolina.
The third potential explanation for claiming that school vouchers are a scheme to destroy public education is — to be blunt — intellectual dishonesty. There are ideologues and special-interest groups who oppose educational choice for their own reasons. They may dislike the very concept of market forces (leftists) or fear that competition will harm the poor or mediocre performers who make up a disproportionate share of their members (teacher unions). To admit that school vouchers are likely to operate similarly to other delivery mechanisms such as Medicaid, financial aid, or child care vouchers would be to surrender a rhetorical stronghold they would rather defend at any cost.
I’ll return to my original question. Why do supposedly serious people claim that school vouchers are a scheme designed to destroy public education? Some are serious but entirely uninformed (the first argument I described). Others are serious but misinformed (the second argument). In each case, school-choice proponents need only patiently and respectfully offer them better information. It will prove persuasive over time.
However, the final group of critics is either too silly to be reasoned with (hard leftists) or serious but dishonest. No amount of information or argument will persuade them. They will have to be bypassed or defeated.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.