Monday, March 19, 2007

Libertarians Against Vouchers -- Accepting Members Now

Megan McArdle and Mathew Yglesias are having a back and forth over vouchers. Megan (I can call you Megan, can't I?) continues the debate in her latest thoughtful post. She seems to have gotten Yglesias to agree that vouchers would be a good idea in the abstract, but he worries about various political and institutional barriers. Megan quite reasonably points out that Mathew Yglesias and other like-minded folks are the political and institutional barriers. After conceding that "should not be used at Tom's House of Arithmetic and Billiards," Megan invites Mathew and his ilk to come forward with a proposal she could get behind:

Come over to our side, outline a voucher plan you'd accept, and as long as it doesn't include "all schools must employ union teachers under centrally negotiated contracts that protect seniority and outlandish grievance procedures", I'll sign on. Central testing? Fine. You want to make sure they serve organic seaweed salad in the lunchroom? If that's what it takes to get you and other liberals into the voucher camp, I'll agree to that too. Double spending per student, for all I care. Libertarians and conservatives are standing here with the door open, ready to negotiate, and so far, no one's even wandered by.

Pardon me, but I may be the only libertarian on the face of the Earth who isn't exactly wild about the whole voucher concept, even if the late Milton Friedman (whom I worship as a god) was, if not the originator of the idea, one of its main proponents.

Voucher proponents (and I was one for a long time) like to think that vouchers will make state-funded schools more like private sector schools. My fear is that it will end up corrupting the private sector schools and making them more like government schools. I fear creeping regulations that may start out as being common sense rules to prevent them from being used at "Tom's House of Arithmetic and Billiards," but which end up being "all schools must employ union teachers under centrally negotiated contracts that protect seniority and outlandish grievance procedures."

We're already off the rails already. Look at one of Yglesias's basic principles: "Public money without public accountability: Bad idea." No! NO! A thousand times, NO! The whole point of a voucher system is that it replaces a system of state-based bureaucratic accountability with a market-based system where the consumers -- i.e., parents and their kids -- get to decide what works and what doesn't work. Bad schools are supposed to close for the same reason that restaurants which serve vile-tasting food tend to close: because people won't buy their product.

If we get vouchers-plus-regulations, which Mathew kinda-sorta thinks is a good idea, then instead of working to please parents and children, school officials are going to be spending a lot of time generating reports, filling out forms, doing paperwork, and demonstrating compliance with the regulations. And even if the regulations start as the kind of light generally-reasonable regulations that Megan or I might devise, regulations are seldom repealed and are often augmented. Twenty years after a voucher system is put in place, I can see it being as heavily regulated and bureaucratic as our current system.

Matthew even starts with a poison pill. He says if he were doing a voucher system, "schools would need to do admissions by lottery." I'm sorry, but maybe some schools really will benefit from having selective admissions. I don't think that schools like the Illinois Math and Science Academy could exist if they had to let in just anybody. And we're not just talking about highly selective schools like that. One of the things about our current system that strikes me as regrettable is its one-size-fits-all mentality. I'm quite willing to believe that some kids might thrive under a hippie-dippie wander-around-and-do-what-you-want system, while others might respond better to rigid military-style discipline. Letting some schools select their students is surely part of a good overall system.

And even well-intentioned rules and regulations are likely to stifle innovation and experimentation. We're all worried about a storefront "school" that's a scam to get money from poor people, but how do you distinguish between a scam and a scrappy entrepreneurial little school with few resources but a willingness to really challenge kids? Maybe Tom's House of Arithmetic and Billiards actually will turn out kids who know a lot of math, in addition to being good pool players. Maybe a school-of-the-future might not actually have its own building with kids sitting in neat rows arranged in classes -- perhaps some sort of decentralized system that combines use of computer-based instruction with private tutoring will be optimal.

I don't know what the perfect system would look like, and I'm honestly not sure that I can come up with a set of regulations that distinguish between outright scams and worthwhile experiments. But I'm pretty sure moving to more government funding isn't a step in the right direction.

UPDATE: Micheal Stastny makes similar points about "public accountability" versus market forces.

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