Litmus Test

A lot of the time, the left can reasonably argue that their increases in the size of government are made out of concern for the common man.  For example, they argue that government needs to massively expand its involvement in health care to help the poor get better treatment.  I think they are wrong, but that's a different story.

But there are occasionally important litmus tests where the left must decide between the interests of government (and its expansion) and the interests of the common man.  I think the DC school voucher program is such an occasion, and its pretty clear that the Democrats in Congress are landing on the side of government.  No matter than most Democrats in Congress send their kids to private schools rather than DC public schools.  No matter that our new Secretary of Education was unable run a public school in Chicago that our current President was willing to send his kids to.

I think proponents of school choice have been very smart in creating school voucher programs that preferentially target poor kids in failing schools.  It eliminates the typical class warfare argument that the program is just about giving rich people a break on their private school tuitions.  Democrats are forced to declare on whether the well-being and education of kids in a program that is dominated by poor African-Americans is more or less important to them than sealing a crack in the government education monopoly.


  1. joshv:

    In large metropolises the public school systems is one of the primary conduits by which tax money is diverted to political contributors and patronage lackies. The Chicago public school system has a bloated "administration" where people with nothing more than a high school degree sit around collecting 6 figure salaries - doing not much of anything useful so far as anybody can tell. One would imagine that those who benefit from this system, and they people they elected, would be highly resistant to decreasing the flow of tax dollars into the system.

    I laughed when Arnie Duncan was nominated. He did absolutely nothing to improve the Chicago public school system or root out corruption, and now he is hailed as some sort of educational genius?

  2. Brad Taylor:

    I suspect many on the left are concerned that a voucher system in which the parent can also contribute makes it more feasible for the state's contribution to reduce over time, maybe even to zero. I've certainly heard this argument made a number of times with respect to the health system here in New Zealand. We've got socialized medicine, and the slippery slope argument is at least part of the reason a proposal for a health voucher system was shot down in the '90s.

    But yeah, I agree that many probably are just in favour of government for government's sake on some issues.

  3. TDK:

    The voucher system has been used in Sweden for some time now. The left opposed it originally but now they accept it.

    Two points I'd like to add

    1. Leftists like state education principally because they see it as an instrument for improving society. Ceding control to other groups makes this harder for them because those groups will have other priorities and may believe in things oppositional to the leftist theory de jour.

    2. The standard leftist response to vouchers is the caravan principle. We shouldn't take measures that improve education for some unless we do it for all. They will argue that the effect of vouchers will be to create better and worse schools and that while some gain others will lose.

    There's some truth in this. In a voucher system schools will either gain pupils and thrive, or lose pupils and decline. I like this because I understand that failing pedagogies, failing schools and failing teachers will be forced out of the system through parental choice. Good pedagogies, good schools and good teachers will become dominant by the same market mechanism.

    The left will focus on the fact that in creating success you also create relative failure. Given the manifest failure of the right to argue against the concept of relative poverty (vs absolute poverty) this argument will be a struggle. Since they believe that central planning, they logically hold that a state actor can determine the best pedagogy more efficiently than the market. Since they hold that people are equal, it follows that there are no bad teachers - all problems can be solved by further intervention.

    As a side note: In the Swedish model only two willing teachers are required to set up a new school.

    3. Government intervention currently exists in the form of owning and running schools. In the UK they also run the teacher training colleges and the Department of Education, which controls teaching methods and the curriculum - I don't know if the situation in the US is the same.

    The obvious fall back position for the leftist is to cede control of the institutions but to retain control of the pedagogy via the teaching colleges and the curriculum. Therefore it is vital that the voucher concept never be diluted to a choice of schools where everything is the same except the administration. It must be true choice.

    My experience amongst the right is that many don't understand this. They object to current teaching because it promotes wrong values and take the view that they can centrally direct it better. This is a fallacy because the right is making the mistake of the left - central planning doesn't work. In the UK the Thatcher/Major government tried to solve the leftward drift of education by creating more central control of education. In practice, this proved a gift to the left.

    We have to let the market determine the best outcome. If we want to encourage what we believe are good outcomes then we have to do it by choosing better schools for our children, creating new teacher training colleges (with traditional pedagogies) to compete with the old ones that have become dominated by the left.

  4. Bill:

    My friend runs a charter boarding school in the poorest, most violent area of DC. He says that he and his partners spent more resources fighting the DC government and teachers union to establish the school than they have in building, financing and staffing it. They boast a college admission rate at competitive schools of over 98%.

    School boards, teachers unions and universities are among most reactionary institutions in American society.

  5. Doug:

    "Concern for the common man" is precisely what gave us the subprime meltdown catastrophe. Never trust the government to do anything right. It is the most clueless of the clueless.

  6. jay:

    Among the people I know who object, the reason is quite different. They are concerned (think with some validity) that religious organizations will use this as a vehicle to grab state funding... set up a token school, get your parishioners to switch kids there and bingo lots of state money

    I do have some concerns, we'll have a whole generation of creationist schooled scientific illiterates.. but then again the public schools have not been too good either.