Monday, August 29, 2011

School Choice

The Indiana school voucher program is under fire from a law suit claiming it is a government sponsorship of religion. The Colorado voucher program just lost a suit from the ACLU but the decision is expected to be overturned by a higher court claiming the lower court judge ignored settled law. Neither suit is expected to disrupt the current school year.

This brings up an important distinction, the difference between giving money to religion and money for education. In the Indiana case only 6 of the 242 nonpublic schools enrolled in the voucher programs were nonreligious but this is reflective of the number of ratio of secular and religious schools. The voucher for the Indiana students is less then the per student cost of education and so saves the school district money. But with tightening budgets, these vouchers are being blamed for lost funding.

Not surprisingly the biggest opponents to school choice are the unions and the teachers they represent. Since they only care about maintaining the status quo and not the students, it is not relevant to them that the students who use the vouchers show significant improvements at private schools. An important question to ask though is if the problem is the educational environment or the education itself that is making the difference. Either way, private schools continue to outperform the majority of public institutions.

As a libertarian, I believe that an paying for an education is the responsibility of the parents and the children not the public. While the late economist Milton Friedman agreed that privatizing the school system would produce better returns, he did advocate for a voucher system as a compromise. A voucher system, in theory at least, allows for the benefit of competition that forces schools to change and become more productive.

Former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne disagreed. Browne believed that since government money inevitably comes with strings attached that a voucher system actually threatened the success that private schools have had.

I agree with the late Harry Browne that such a threat is possible. However, there is some evidence that a voucher system does help to improve academic performance. If voucher programs can get past the constitutional hurdle in enough states, we may be able to see if in the end they are a net benefit.


Friar Tuck said...

"As a libertarian, I believe that an paying for an education is the responsibility of the parents and the children not the public."
Not to question your argument in its entirety, but let me ask a few questions. Is education a human right? Does an educated public serve the common good?
Yes to either of these, I don't think implies a state run school system, but I'm interested in your thoughts and how it fits in with you political and economic beliefs.

Verl Humpherys said...

It depends on ones view of rights. If you believe in positive rights, meaning that people are entitled to certain things then the answer for you might be different. On the other hand, if you believe in negative rights, meaning that you cannot be prohibited from doing something, then you may reach a different conclusion.

As a negative rights person, I believe people have the right to pursue an education but not the right to be granted an education. An educated public does serve the common good and this is one justification for socialized education. However, the issue is one of final effect.

Socializing inevitably reduced incentives for improving performance and since the majority of kids go through public education, it has a social cost.

Since education is politicized, whoever has the most political power wins out. Like most other political issues, those who have the most to gain, such as teachers unions inevitably look out for their own self interest at the expense of the consumers. I do not think teachers are any more greedy or selfish then anyone else but without the balancing affect of accountability directly to the consumer, their irrational and often time unconscious behavior can lead to negative results.

Like most issues, education can be incredibly complex. We have limited data from before public schooling began and it is hard to tell what is in societies best interest.

Friar Tuck said...

"On the other hand, if you believe in negative rights, meaning that you cannot be prohibited from doing something, then you may reach a different conclusion."

However, doesn't every negative right necessarily descend from a positive right. Your very definition of negative rights assumes that everyone has a positive right to choose for themselves.
We have discussed this before, but from where do you get your negative rights, or if you agree with my above statement, the positive right of self-determination?

Verl Humpherys said...

Negative rights do not descend from positive rights unless you are claiming that everyone is entitled to be given the ability to choose. The right to self determination can only be a negative right since no one is given the ability of self determination by anyone else but by right cannot be denied self determination.

Rights are a very complicated issue. As a matter of principle I keep the basic belief that everyone has the right to do what ever the wish so long as they do not infringe on the equal rights of others. While this does not obviously maximize social welfare, the Utilitarian response can have the negative consequence that result from redistribution. Since an individuals utility increases at a decreasing rate, taking from the rich and giving to the poor should increase social welfare as the poor would gain more then the rich would lose. This can have a discouraging effect on those who lose utility and future increases in social welfare may be less then otherwise.

Friar Tuck said...

I'll grant that I'm not certain that all negative rights come from positive rights, but I don't understand your point about self-determination. You seem to be saying that people ought to be able to choose as they please and no one can interfere with this, and somehow this is a negative right.

Let me offer another example. Do people have a right to food? Say there is a starving person on the side of the road. Does he have a right to food? By your negative rights theory, he has only the right that he can't be prohibited from getting food.

This is another problem I have with the Libertarian non-interference view. It is tragically inhuman. According to the Libertarian, he would be wholly justified in letting the man starve to death, because he has no right to food, only a right to not be prohibited from getting food.

Again, this strikes me as a case where a modern theory takes only a part of the truth and proclaims it to be the whole truth. Yes, in a sense there are negative rights, but there really are positive rights. It is not that people should not be impeded in their day goings-on, but they have an eminent human dignity that must be recognized and respected.

This human dignity means that people have a right to life, i.e. to food, shelter, basic medical aid, etc. Further, this human dignity implies that people have a right to a certain degree of education, given what human person are.

When we try to reduce human rights to merely negative rights, we in someways deny the dignity of the human person.

I will point out here that none of this implies a specific political or economic system. I am not suggested a form of socialism, but merely a recognition of human nature. Indeed, human dignity is the necessary condition upon which any political or economic system must be founded for it to be just and humane.