Sunday, October 23, 2005

Yglesias on vouchers

Matthew Yglesias, in a typical attempt to put a fresh take on the Democratic party line, criticizes New York Times columnist John Tierney, and the latter's support of public education vouchers. Tierney specifically mentions the various controversies that constantly bubble up concerning public education, and makes the observation that vouchers would enable families some protection from such worries. Matt writes:
Tierney himself is a libertarian, so there's no reason to expect him to care about the equity issues here, but he thinks he's devised an argument that should be persuasive to liberals but shouldn't be assuming we care about something other than self-interest.
To this day I don't quite get liberal hysteria surrounding the issue of vouchers. At heart, what is at issue is whether or not, in addition to providing funds to insure that all children are educated, the government should also operate and manage the schools themselves. For the most part in rich democracies, we don't follow this course of action. We allow the recipients of government-funded programs to be consumers. Canadians who use their universal healthcare system don't do so (for the most part) in government-owned and operated hospitals or doctors' offices. They simply have the government pay for the services rendered. Americans who receive Social Security checks or food stamps don't buy their groceries at government-owned and operated supermarkets.

I mean, maybe you can make an argument that the government should own and operate the schools (and tell you which one to attend), but I can't think of anything that's necessary for education that couldn't be handled by a system whereby the government pays (and indeed insures equity in funding), but allows non-governmental units to actually provision the good.

One question I'd like to hear answered from liberals is this: if you had to choose from only the following two alternatives, would you prefer: a) a pure school choice/voucher system where every student in the whole country receives a voucher of equal value or purchasing power, but government no longer manages or operates the schools themselves; or, b) today's status quo, with government operating and managing schools, but with large financial inequities often present.

Anyway, the excerpt Matt cites has Mr. Tierney making the rather obvious and non-startling argument that if families could merely vote with their feet, the innumerable, ugly clashes about ideology (gay proms, pledge of allegiance, evolution, library censorship, etc, ad infinitum) we're constantly hearing about with regard to public education would largely disappear. Or at least Tierney thinks they would. Does that make him selfish? Really? Maybe Tierney just thinks, as lots of libertarians do, that getting government out of the business of operating and managing schools (while leaving it very much in the business of funding, ie., providing equal resources) would improve education. Why must liberals turn any discussion about vouchers into some Manichean shouting match about those "evil" and "selfish" libertarians?

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