February 25, 2002
The Voucher Debate and the Failure of Federal Education
The Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the now- infamous Cleveland school vouchers case. At issue, at least in the Cleveland case, is whether publicly-funded vouchers can be used by children attending private and parochial schools. While the court will focus on the tenuous argument that a "separation of church and state" renders vouchers unconstitutional, the larger issue for all of us is whether the federal education system needs to be scrapped. After all, if centralized Washington control of education was working, parents wouldnít be clamoring for vouchers in the first place.
I applaud the proponents of vouchers for having the initiative to try something new that challenges the federal governmentís virtual monopoly on education. Itís admirable to apply a market approach to schools. Forty years of Great Society federal programs have done nothing but make our public schools worse. Fifty years ago, before the federal government became involved in public education, American grammar and high schools were the best in the world. Students faced a demanding curriculum of math, hard sciences, geography, literature, western civilization, spelling and grammar, Latin, and useful trades. They even learned American history, which is sadly lacking in todayís schools. Teachers were respected, and free to enforce discipline without fear of lawsuits or being undermined by school administrators and parents.
The stark contrast between our public schools then and now shows that federal control of education has failed. Todayís public schools often produce graduates who lack even basic reading and writing skills. Politically-motivated multiculturism and leftist indoctrination take the place of rigorous learning. Teacher unions fight to protect their turf and save jobs, rather than focusing on the education of our kids. Many public schools are dilapidated and dangerous, with teachers afraid of students and discipline nonexistent. Given this reality, we can hardly be surprised that parents are demanding vouchers to get their children out of a failing system. The federal bureaucrats may claim that vouchers will undermine public schools, but the truth is that federal education already has failed miserably, and competition could only improve matters.
However, the voucher debate really ignores the more important question of whether public schools should be run by federal or local government. The Constitution does not authorize any federal involvement in education; Article I grants Congress no authority to create, fund, or regulate schools at all. Therefore, under the 10th Amendment public education should be purely a state and local matter. This means Congress should not be taxing you to fund a huge federal education bureaucracy that exercises dictatorial control over curriculum and standards nationwide. Those tax dollars should be left with parents and local voters, who can best decide how to allocate precious education resources. Public schools should be funded at the local level with local tax dollars, where waste is minimized and accountability is greatest. The failed federal system of public school funding has become a bureaucratic black hole, where the majority of tax dollars never reach the classroom.
The Supreme Court, like Congress, should simply follow the Constitution. The Constitution allows states and local governments to decide for themselves whether to have a voucher program. It does not, however, allow the federal government to fund, regulate, or control those voucher programs. The emphasis on local control established in the Constitution is especially important when it comes to education, and it is no coincidence that our schools have declined as federal control has increased. Itís time to end the 40-year Washington stranglehold on education by returning control -which means returning tax dollars- to parents and local school systems. The best immediate approach is to give parents a federal tax credit for amounts spent on education. Ultimately, however, we can only resurrect our public schools by following the Constitution and ending the federal education monopoly.