Giving Credit Where It's Due: Why Tax Credits Are Better Than Vouchers. (Controversy)

By Coulson, Andrew J. | Independent Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Giving Credit Where It's Due: Why Tax Credits Are Better Than Vouchers. (Controversy)


Coulson, Andrew J., Independent Review


In his article "Why Conservatives and Libertarians Should Support School Vouchers," Joseph Bast argues that these groups should do so because vouchers are consistent with their political views. The wisdom of that recommendation is questionable, for two reasons: first, because this same argument would encourage Democrats and some centrists automatically to reject vouchers (and every other market-based reform); and, second, because our children's futures are too important to be decided by our political orientations.

Bast also voices his disappointment in supporters of education tax credits for their having publicly raised concerns about vouchers. He equates such criticism with "taking away from people their freedom to choose" and with a willingness "to substitute one's own judgments for the informed decisions of people." In making those equations, Bast errs. An honest and open public-policy debate neither disfranchises the American people nor prevents them from making informed decisions. On the contrary, it is essential to their ability to make such decisions.

Though Bast may have reservations about the public airing of concerns over vouchers, he at least will be pleased to know that, for reasons to be given, this critic favors the expansion of existing voucher programs. Although I recommend the adoption of tax credits over vouchers wherever possible, I do not oppose the passage of voucher legislation in states that knowingly choose that course.

Market Education: Smorgasbord or Ecosystem?

Nearly all pundits and reformers assume that education markets compose a smorgasbord from which we can select or reject policy details according to personal taste or political expediency. This assumption, rarely acknowledged and never defended, is wrong.

Properly functioning education markets much more closely resemble delicate ecosystems in which the alteration or removal of key elements leads to the decline or collapse of the entire system. That conviction, at any rate, is the one I have reached after spending years comparing historical and international school-governance structures from classical Greece to modern Japan (Coulson 1999). The five elements that seem crucial to the longevity and effectiveness of market education are: parental choice, direct financial responsibility for parents, freedom for educators, competition among schools, and the profit motive for schools.

Readers of this journal are no doubt already familiar with the importance of consumer choice in a free and vigorously competitive market. The need for significant competition is indeed one reason why even dedicated proponents of the voucher concept have criticized existing voucher programs. Economist John Merrifield has repeatedly noted (most notably in Merrifield 2001) that existing small-scale voucher programs do not engender enough competition to produce the full benefits associated with a genuinely competitive education marketplace. For this reason, among others, I strongly advocate the expansion of existing voucher programs: any haze of uncertainty that opponents of market education may conjure up around these programs likely would be cleared away by enlarging the number of competing schools.

Because both parental choice and professional freedom for educators are goals that all proponents of market education share, I need not discuss them here. Three down, two to go.

The role of profits, though generally accepted and understood in fields outside of education, unfortunately elicits less enthusiasm when applied to teachers and schools. In the absence of the profit motive, the constant progress in technology, quality, and efficiency that are taken for granted in other sectors of the economy essentially have been absent in education. Whereas the most popular for-profit businesses expand to meet growing demand, nonprofit schools simply expand their waiting lists. The nation's leading nonprofit private schools enroll just a few hundred or perhaps a thousand more students today than they did a century ago, withholding their high-quality services from throngs of children who could benefit greatly from them.

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Giving Credit Where It's Due: Why Tax Credits Are Better Than Vouchers. (Controversy)
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