Columnists, Education, Mike Rosen

Rosen: Vouchers mean greater school choice, empowered families

A recent letter to the editor in the Denver Post criticized a column by Krista Kafer headlined, “More school choice ahead for Colorado?”  Kafer was cautiously optimistic about the possibility that our governor-elect, Jared Polis, might champion school-choice alternatives when he takes office, noting his appointment of some school-choice reformers to his transition subcommittee on education, and his history of supporting charter schools.  Of course, Colorado’s powerful teacher unions are inalterably opposed to anything that will break their monopoly in public schools.  Given the outsized influence those unions have on Democrats who hold or seek elected office, it can be political suicide to defy them.  Supporting something like private school vouchers would be quite an act of courage and independence on Polis’s part, or any Democrat’s for that matter.

I know Krista.  She’s a brilliant, politically savvy, reasonable, right-center thinker.  As a pretense of balance, the unabashedly liberal and doggedly anti-Trump Denver Post gave her a weekly column on its opinion page this year, where she’s a greatly outnumbered conservative voice.  She certainly needs no help from me in defending herself, but I did want to dispute Krista’s letter-writing critic.  Among other false assertions, he claimed, “Vouchers to private schools will simply siphon off money from public schools so that more well-off families can get an unneeded discount.”

Not so.  Public funding of education, from local property taxes or general state tax revenues, is fundamentally intended to finance the individual education of school children in the most effective manner.  It shouldn’t matter whether that takes place in a public or private school.  Education vouchers don’t go directly to private schools.  They’re issued to the parents of school-age children who can then redeem them to pay for some or all of a child’s tuition at a private school of the parents’ choice.  (Military veterans, like me, helped finance their college education under the G.I. Bill in a similar way.)

A voucher system wouldn’t alter the current policy of compulsory education or public funding of schools.  It would just create more choices in the delivery of that publicly-funded education.  To assert that “money is siphoned off from public schools” when parents choose a private school with their voucher presupposes that public schools are always the better choice and reveals a fundamental bias that having government provide a service is always preferable to the private sector.  Thank goodness the rest of our economy doesn’t work that way.  Many Americans prefer Fed Ex and UPS to the US Postal Service.  Why should education be any different?  Harvard, Yale, Princeton (or conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan ) aren’t government schools and yet seem to be well-attended and highly regarded.  And they productively coexist with government schools.  Think of the private University of Denver and the public University of Colorado.

If large numbers of parents were to use vouchers for private schools, public schools with fewer students wouldn’t need as many teachers and administrators or money.  That money wouldn’t be “siphoned off,” it would simply be redirected more efficiently and responsively to private schools by parents, the customers, of publicly-funded education.  Vouchers empower families that otherwise might not be able to afford a private school with the purchasing power to do so, creating more demand for private schools.  In our market economy, that would lead to an increase in the supply of private schools, breeding more competition in the education marketplace.  Greater competition is a proven pathway to more choices and better services.  Ironically, it would even force improvement in public schools.  Everyone wins except the teacher unions, who hate competition.

As for, “well-off families getting an unneeded discount,” rich families can already afford private schools.  And those who send their kids there pay higher taxes to subsidize public schools they don’t use, while also sparing public school districts the expense of educating their kids.  In any event, if politically necessary to appease the resentment and covetousness of Bernie Sanders progressives, a voucher system could include a means-test to deny vouchers to their despised “one percent.”  And who’s to say a voucher that acts as a private school discount is unneeded or undeserved by the much greater numbers of middle-income families who would qualify?  They, too, would continue to subsidize public schools with their tax dollars even when they choose a private school option for their kids.  Incidentally, most of those in the nation’s voucher systems that already exist are in lower-income families, with long waiting lists of minority families desperate to escape failing public schools.

Another important consideration is a political one.  Many parents oppose the ideology and agenda of the “progressive” public school establishment.  K-12 public education is dominated by a leftist culture that covets its monopoly power to influence and indoctrinate impressionable young minds in its dogma.  Curricula and textbooks obsess on the flaws and imperfections of American history and downplay its virtues and achievements.  They call this “critical thinking.”  Also fashionable in educratic circles is an emphasis on “affective” learning (how students feel) over “cognitive” (what they know).  So, feelings overpower reason.  Self-esteem trumps actual achievement.  Multiculturalism encourages identity politics and discourages assimilation.  This concentration on social engineering crowds out basic academics.  It’s no surprise millennial graduates prefer socialism to capitalism; and social justice to meritocracy.  For parents who prefer an educational philosophy more in line with their own values and beliefs, expanded school choice and vouchers can be a salvation.

Finally, Krista Kafer’s critic concluded with this passage: “I contend that our focus should be on making every public school in our state a center of excellence striving to give every child an equal chance.”  Really?  What a meaningless, turgid platitude.  This is an idealistic plea pretending to be a remedy.  He offers nothing in the way of a specific proposal to get to that utopian goal other than just throwing more taxpayer money at the same politically contaminated and underperforming system.

Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.

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