Politics & Policy

School Vouchers Are Not a Form of ‘Welfare’

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It’s time school-choice advocates adopted the language of their intellectual progenitor, Milton Friedman.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, well-known for his theory of moral foundations, argues that one of the most effective ways to sway an ideological counterpart to your side is to speak their moral language. He asserts that liberals and conservatives respond more favorably to arguments that appeal to specific virtues: The latter are more sympathetic to loyalty-based arguments while the former prefer fairness-based arguments. It’s a useful way to understand our fellow man, but in the debate over school choice, the stubborn appeal to fairness can hold back the cause of badly needed reform.

Various coalitions supporting school choice have been effective at co-opting the language of the Left to make the case that vouchers are primarily about “fairness” to kids who come from lower-income backgrounds. This is something that I, myself, have done on a number of occasions while fighting for choice in Wisconsin. Increasingly, however, the question that arises is whether, by adopting the fairness argument for school choice, proponents have abandoned the concept’s ideological foundation, making more it difficult to expand vouchers beyond low-income minority children in failing urban schools.

When the language of fairness is used exclusively, it is easy for the naïve observer to conflate school-choice programs with social-welfare programs. The chief argument for social welfare — that it evens out the odds — sounds very similar to arguments that school-choice levels the playing field for students from low-income families. But such rhetoric can make it easy to counter the case for voucher expansion. For example, a recent editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal makes the case that parents whose annual income is above 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($45,000 for a family of four) are too wealthy to need school choice. Even proponents of education reform in Wisconsin, such as state senator Alberta Darling, have expressed concern that families with annual incomes at or above 300 percent of the federal poverty line should not qualify for vouchers.

There is a critical difference between school choice and most welfare programs. Social-welfare programs are redistributive — taking from those of means and giving to those without. School-choice programs are different. In their purest form, they take money that is earmarked for a student in a public school and transfer it to an alternative private school that the student’s parents believe will provide a better education. The money is spent regardless of where a student’s parents decide to send him to school.

This is an important distinction to make, as the idea that school choice should only be available to the poor is diametrically opposed to the vision laid out by choice’s intellectual godfather, Milton Friedman. In a seminal 1955 essay, Friedman argued that the government school monopoly prevents innovation by retarding competition. Public schools are free; rational parents will weigh that fact heavily in their minds when evaluating where to send their students regardless of their income level. Friedman’s model would “make for more effective competition among various types of schools, and for more efficient utilization of their resources,” according to Friedman.

In short, Friedman was endeavoring to create a system whereby all schools would have to compete for all students, no matter their financial circumstances. It was through competition that schools would improve and parents and students would be empowered to seek out the best education available to them. This is the style of voucher program found in countries such as Chile and Sweden, but not (as yet) anywhere in the United States.

As advocates, we cannot and should not abandon the fairness-based argument for school choice. But if we are to realize Milton Friedman’s vision of an educational free market, we must couple our appeals to fairness with appeals to the economic liberty on which his vision was based. American parents of all classes and income levels deserve nothing less.


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