Monday, January 23, 2023

Choice, Vouchers, and the End of Public Education

Doug Mastriano was not out of step with the movement; he was just a bit early.

Mastriano ran for governor of Pennsylvania with the idea that he could end real estate taxes entirely and  cut state funding for public schools to $0.00. Just give everyone a tiny voucher and send them on their way. The idea was far enough out there that the campaign tried to back away from it (without entirely disowning it) and even other GOP politicians raised eyebrows and said, "No, not that."

You slice them off at the knees, right here--
The thing is, this is not a new idea. It has been the fondest dream of some choicers all along. Nancy MacLean, professor of history and public policy at Duke University, offered a succinct digest in the Washington Post of what Milton Friedman, granddaddy of the not-overtly-racist wing of the school choice movement, thought about the movement and its ultimate goals.

Friedman, too, was interested in far more than school choice. He and his libertarian allies saw vouchers as a temporary first step on the path to school privatization. He didn’t intend for governments to subsidize private education forever. Rather, once the public schools were gone, Friedman envisioned parents eventually shouldering the full cost of private schooling without support from taxpayers. Only in some “charity” cases might governments still provide funding for tuition.

Friedman first articulated this outlook in his 1955 manifesto, but he clung to it for half a century, explaining in 2004, “In my ideal world, government would not be responsible for providing education any more than it is for providing food and clothing.” Four months before his death in 2006, when he spoke to a meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), he was especially frank. Addressing how to give parents control of their children’s education, Friedman said, “The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.”

You don't have to set the wayback machine to find folks saying this quiet part out loud. Utah is one of several red states racing to ram through a voucher bill. Here's Allison Sorenson, executive director of Utah Fits For All, an outfit marketing the voucher plan like crazy; in this clip, she's explaining that the folks who back Utah's plan can't come right out and say they're going to defund public education entirely, that admitting the goal is to destroy public education would be too politically touchy. 

Vouchers are not about choice. Just look at Florida, which has worked to disrupt, defund and dismantle public schools for years, while simultaneously shutting down and limiting what choices schools are allowed to offer. Look at every state's voucher law; they all enshrine a private "education provider's" right to deny and discriminate as they wish, thereby denying choice to any students they wish to deny choice to. One of the biggest limiters of school choice is not the public system, but the private system's unwillingness to open their doors to all these students who, we hear, are just thirsting for choices.

We know what a free market education system looks like--it looks like the US post-secondary education system. Occasional attempts at free-to-all schools are beaten down by racist and classist arguments, along with charges of socialist indoctrination. You get as much choice as you can afford, the private schools only accept (and keep) the students they want, and those who aspire to certain levels of schooling have to sink themselves in debt to get it. Meanwhile, state's slowly but surely withdraw financial support from the few "public" universities left.

Should we enter a world where vouchers flourish and public schools die out, it seems easy to imagine a next step in which politicians either quietly (with budgetary legerdemain) or publicly (by attacking the voucher "entitlements" or asking why people without kids should have to pay taxes to send other people's kids to school) make the voucher payment thinner and thinner, offering advice like the already-too-oft-repeated advice that some folks might want to sign up for one of those Microschools, where a few neighbor kids gather to pull some education off a computer screen. 

It would be easy. After all, instead of a collective such as a teachers union or the collective group of parents and taxpayers rallied around a community's school, the slashers would face a disjointed, splintered bunch of individual parents making their individual way through a broad marketplace. 

Milton Friedman's dream is still alive, and this year it appears that some folks are working hard to get one step closer to it. May they all fail miserably. 


  1. Thank you for shining light on the facts— from a person of white privilege who is a parent, former elementary teacher and teacher coach in all types of schools, mindfulness/SEL teacher in an all “minority enrolled” and all “economically disadvantaged” school district, instructor for youth in prison, pardon application coach and radio co-host with an incarcerated individual serving life without parole. The school to prison pipeline is inhumane, and we must protect and repair our public education system in order to combat it and ensure everyone the right to freedom and well-being.

  2. Thank you for explaining history and sharing facts. The school to prison pipeline is inhumane, and we must understand how it was built and is being fueled.