Free Money for Students

Reading is fundamental. Way back in the “good old days” childhood poverty led to illiteracy which led to a lifetime of lower class status. Rather unfair, that. And so public education was born. Unlike many other welfare programs, which encourage unproductive behavior and cost society dearly, public education paid the public back. While the government paid for the schools, the government received in return better informed voters and more productive taxpayers.

Public education was a great success in its day, but is it optimal today? Technically speaking, public education is an example of socialism; i.e., government ownership of the means of production.

Food is even more fundamental than education. The Russians tried feeding the poor with government ownership of the farms and bakeries. The result: mass starvation. The Chinese tried it as well. The result: even more starvation (in absolute terms). Ditto for Cambodia and Ethiopia.

Capitalism tempered with welfare works rather better than socialism. In today’s United States we have privately owned farms, bakeries and grocery stores, along with food stamps for the poor. The result: fat poor people. If our education system was as effective as our food aid, we’d have ghettos filled with kids quoting Shakespeare and coding alternatives to Microsoft Windows.

We don’t. We have a socialist model of education. Maybe it is time to replace public schools with school stamps; that is, free money for students.

Today’s public schools are a relic of 19th Century thinking. They stem from the same pool of ideas as Prussian statism and Marxism. But 19th Century thinking on education also had some basis in 19th Century conditions. There were no school buses in those days. Children walked. Most children lived in low-density rural areas. Schools were thus a natural monopoly. Socialism made sense. Democratic socialism, in the form of local school boards, sort of worked because the number of voters was small enough that every vote counted. Schools were accountable to the parents and taxpayers.

These conditions no longer apply. We have school buses. We have a population concentrated in cities and suburbs. Competition is possible. It is also necessary, as the democratic socialist model has given way to unaccountable state and federal bureaucracies and politically powerful teachers’ unions. In wealthy suburbs, where the parents are well off and educated, where public education is unnecessary, public schools still work. In the inner cities, where the poor are concentrated, the public schools are performing like Stalin’s food delivery system – not so well.

Free money for students could deliver a quality education to those who actually need government assistance. The call for school vouchers is an area where conservatives are more caring and progressive than liberals.

But yes, the idea has problems, as libertarians will be quick to point out. The free “money” must come in the form of coupons vs. cash, else bad parents will use it for booze or big screen TVs. Once government gets into the business of issuing coupons, government must decide what constitutes education. Private schools will lose some autonomy. And the voters and courts must wrestle with edge conditions. Do we allow home schools to qualify? How about home mini-schools consisting of a mother, her children and a few neighborhood kids? What of parochial schools with a heavily religious curriculum? What of madrassas?

The problems are significant, but the potential benefits enormous. Education is not a one-size-fits-all product. The factory model, where rooms of children are expected to study the same things at the same rate, is mind-numbingly dull. And since we have lost the will to literally beat kids into submission to this regimen, it has become increasingly inefficient, especially in our inner cities, which is sadly ironic, because if we had free money for students, the inner cities would be the best places to get an education. High population density leads to more choices, more specialization options.