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School Vouchers: The Christian Right, Social Conservatism and Dismantling the State

Posted by That Other Mike on 05/01/2009

This was intended to be Part One of a two-part series; instead, I’ve decided to meld the articles together because the second part flows so easily from the first.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has become a little eccentric over the past thirty years or so. It seems more and more that the party which was initially against Federal government intrusion into areas of State politics has become the party against government of any kind, at least in a lot of its rhetoric.

While this is applied in varying degrees, it seems generally that in the following areas, the Republicans have remained consistent with their stated intent to dismantle the state: social and business policy.

We all know that massive deregulation of business, the monetarist experiment whose crows have just recently come home to roost, has been something of a failure, and hopefully the incoming Administration and Democratic majority will do something about putting appropriate regulatory measures back into place in this regard. While markets can and do spark innovation and growth, the unregulated market is not free, but lawless, and the only people who win are the robber barons.

This, however, is not what I want to focus on today. Another key component, as I said, of recent Republican oratory has been a faux concern for civil rights in terms of “the rights of the individual”. You will note the scare quotes; I use them because I believe that this supposed concern is less about individuals’ not being intruded upon by government and more about pandering to particular groups which distrust the state as a founding principle: in this case, the Christian Right.

The concept of the Christian Right, we are all familiar with; they hold to socially conservative views and wish to see them enforced on others by statute, while at the same time holding the seemingly contradictory view that their freedom to engage socially and in business as they see fit (code for being free to discriminate and disregard workers’ rights) should be left untrammelled.

In the aforementioned social conservatism, a high premium is placed on the rights of the individual as long as said individual conforms to the dominant social norms.

The most glaring example is that freedom of religion is spoken about in terms of being free to choose any religion — so long as it falls into a Christian denomination. This, of course, is in direct opposition to true freedom of religion, which necessarily encompasses the right to be free from religion, not to mention free to practise alternative religions.

Key components of this include a very narrow reading of law and the Constitution, frequently under the guise of “Strict Constructionism”, an interpretative mode of reading the Constitution which posits that the judge apply the text as written and no further, once the meaning of the text has been uncovered. Said meaning, of course, is usually “discovered” through the use of such bankrupt forms of analysis as Originalism; a reading which coincidentally always ends up with a result in line with the socially and politically conservative views of the Originalist.

The freedom to discriminate socially and to run businesses without interference is in contradiction to this viewpoint, at least on the surface; on a closer look, however, it does display some consistency — there has been little protection afforded to worker rights and civil liberties have often been viewed via the prism of negative liberties only, making this something of a socially conservative viewpoint.

This of course leads directly to the viewpoint that the state should be dismantled, or at least stripped down to its most minimal aspects; usually, this is posited as the protection of property rights, alongside the prohibition of certain behaviour which the conservative finds morally unacceptable, such as drinking, gambling or same-sex marriage.

For some reason, this viewpoint also seems to come with a healthy dose of paranoia attached. I would conjecture that this is less to do with the Right-wing aspect of this position than the Christian side; a key component of Christianity is, after all, the battlefield mentality of good vs. evil, moral absolutes versus reality, and the Devil vs. God.

If your worldview comprises the beliefs that your group has the only true and correct view not only of life but of eternity, and that you are constantly under attack by an unseen agent of evil that is trying to destroy you, paranoia is certainly an understandable reaction. Similarly, this view will also lead to the assumption that your enemies are trying to indoctrinate you and your children into incorrect ways of thinking, which leads to a distrust of the State in the form of the educational system, especially when it is teaching things which are at variance with your beliefs, such as evolution.

This distrust of state systems, coupled with a desire to dismantle the state apparatus protecting positive liberties, has led a significant number of Republicans to champion unregulated homeschooling1 as well as call for “school choice”, a loaded term for the implementation of school voucher systems.

Typically this is framed in terms of giving parents who sign up for it the option to receive a credit voucher from the state which can be used towards paying for education at a private school of some kind. A frequent claim is that school vouchers will give a greater choice of schools to parents who might otherwise only have been able to send their children to public schools, and that by doing so, they will relieve pressure on underfunded, “failing” public schools, allowing them to better educate2.

I think, on balance, though, that this is bogus, and that the whole enterprise of school vouchers is problematic in a number of different ways. I’ve put my objections into list form, in no particular order.

  1. Vouchers will fail because they simply shift the problem onto private schools
    Part of the reason vouchers are touted as an acceptable replacement for public schooling is that private schools allegedly offer superior tuition, and to a certain extent, this is true — smaller classes generally offer an environment in which students can receive a pace of teaching more consummate with their individual abilities, and the fact that most people don’t send their children to private schools allows for smaller teaching groups. If, however, vouchers prove a success, they will shift the burden for education onto private schools, swelling their numbers, causing them to either have to hire more teachers (which decreases their profitability, and also decreasing their ability to hire well-paid teachers), or increase their classroom numbers. In short, a successful voucher programme contains the seeds of its own destruction.
  2. It might not provide enough coverage
    Milwaukee has a voucher system in place; qualifying students’ parents are given approximately $6500; Hong Kong also has a system in place, where parents are given HKD$13000. Assuming comparable funding levels, even adjusted for local variations, a lot of private schools are going to be more expensive than that.
    This runs into the same problem for private schools, too: either they lower their prices and allow an influx of students in who otherwise wouldn’t have been there, or allow only those students whose parents can make up the rest of the tuition, in which case vouchers become an expensive way of subsidising the school activities of the rich or well-off.
  3. It undermines the public school system for those students still in it, and burdens taxpayers
    Simply put, those students whose grades aren’t good enough to be accepted by private schools, or whose parents are the wrong religion, will be left in the public sector. This might undermine the system as it stands on two fronts: it might cause an overall reduction in grades in the public system, reducing it to the default option for “troubled” students, effectively transforming it into an adjunct to juvie, and it would reduce funding for the public schools, which would act as a disincentive towards teachers joining them.
    On the other hand, if funding remains static, this requires a tax increase, as in Milwaukee, which has seen increased property taxes across the board.
  4. Private schools are unregulated, and thus not bound to provide a proper education via a reasonable curriculum
    This is rather self-explanatory — private schools don’t have to offer anything approaching a reasonable education. If minimal standards are not imposed, what guarantee exists for the provision of a good, rounded education? And if standards are imposed, the underlying principle that open competition through deregulation forces better results is compromised.
    Private schools are free to teach anti-Semitism, Creationism and Flat Earthism, if they so desire; they are also not directly accountable to the public for their performance. Even if minimal grade standards and the like are applied, they will still be separated from the public and not accountable to them, even while leeching money off the public purse.
  5. It undermines the secular nature of government
    Funding private religious schools via vouchers seems to violate the secular nature of the state; this is not incidental to their purpose, either, as would be allowing them to use public funding for buses and the like, which only indirectly affects them. Direct funding by the state of religious institutions is a violation of the separation of church and state; to my mind, it immediately fails the Lemon Test; it promotes an excessive entanglement between government and religion, in the form of directly funding its organs of proselytisation, and directly advancing their agenda of keeping their numbers up.

And finally… school vouchers don’t seem to work in practice. The flagship Milwaukee programme has actually seen a trend wherein the grades of students in private schools via the voucher programme are actually worse than those of their public school counterparts. One of the chief rationales for the existence of the voucher programme is that it is supposed to provide a better education; if this is clearly not the case, why are vouchers even in consideration?

1 I have nothing against homeschooling per se; I do think, however, that it should be at least minimally regulated.
2 This of course leaves aside the argument by some that there should be no public schools at all, and that any educational funding should be provided solely in voucher form; this is a minority view even among voucher proponents, and the positive arguments in favour of retaining a public school system are fairly obvious: namely, that society as a whole and children in particular benefit immeasurably from education.

Another pro argument made, usually from Friedmanites and other dubious individuals, is that opening up the education “market” will increase competition, which will force schools both public and private towards better performance. This is as suspect in this context as in any other; it assumes rational actors and perfect market performance, and as such, can be safely discounted.


2 Responses to “School Vouchers: The Christian Right, Social Conservatism and Dismantling the State”

  1. Lottie said

    This is a great post, Honey. I’m planning to link to it later when I write my next post about the schools here. For now, I want to comment on one of your footnotes:

    I have nothing against homeschooling per se; I do think, however, that it should be at least minimally regulated.

    I completely agree. As you know, Texas homeschools have basically no regulation at all. As it stands, any semi-literate fool can yank his kids out of school and “educate” them at home using his Bible as curriculum. And that’s only a slight exaggeration. Very slight.

    That’s not to say, of course, that all Texas homeschoolers are semi-literate Bible thumpers. I’ll write more about this in the post I’m working on.

    I think New Mexico sets a good example for moderately regulating homeschools.

    Great post! You outlined your arguments very well!

  2. Mike said

    Thanks 🙂

    Like I said, I think homeschools, for whatever reason, should be allowed to take place; I simply dislike the idea of their being unregulated. If the schooling of minors is a big enough public good that we require it to take place in the first place, how is that served by allowing the kind of non-schooling which takes place in so many homeschool environments?

    And I agree, the NM standards look pretty good.

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