Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

For the Children

By Carl Milsted, Jr.

Environmentalists want to reduce suburban sprawl. Progressives want to reduce the wealth gap. Conservatives want to teach their children traditional values. Libertarians want to cut taxes.

Guess what, we can do all these things at once, using an idea that has already been tested in places like New Zealand and Sweden: school vouchers.

School vouchers would have limited impact in rural areas and low-density suburbs. In the inner cities, however, the impact would be huge.

The U.S. public school system was designed for a different era, when people lived on farms or in small communities -- that were often segregated by race, class and/or religion -- and children walked to school. Because children walked and people lived far apart, education was a natural monopoly. And because the schools were small, and the parents of similar backgrounds, democratic management worked well.

Democracy does not work so well as the number of voters grows. The impact of each vote diminishes, so people have less reason to put much effort into making a good decision. Also, it is harder for those running for school board to get to know the parents. Power devolves from the parents and taxpayers to the bureaucrats and teacherís unions. Furthermore, democracy works poorly where communities are deeply divided. Just look at the history of the Third World countries containing multiple tribes.

One possible solution for Americaís cities would be to have more than one school district per city. Let each high school have its own school board, which oversees that school along with its feeder schools. Layers of bureaucracy would be removed, and each neighborhood could set its curriculum and standards of student behavior. Do this, and the city schools would have a chance at being competitive with the suburban schools.

But we can do better. There is no need for the school board approach in cities. Where children live close together, competition works! Implement a program of school vouchers and the inner city schools would become better than the suburban and rural schools. Upper middle class families would move back into the cities in order to have better opportunities for their children. Interstate highway traffic would lessen, as people move closer to work. Pressure to turn farms and wild lands into subdivisions would weaken.

Children in the slums could get a good education should they so desire. No longer would a poor family have to afford a nice house in order to qualify for a good education. The wealth gap would narrow substantially over time.

So, why arenít progressives and environmentalists jumping on board this opportunity? Two problems come to mind:

First, vouchers raise the ugly specter of segregation. Some parents would choose schools based upon race, ethnicity, class or religion. This is a legitimate concern, but I think it is way overblown. Many inner city schools are segregated already, since people moved apart after the public schools were desegregated. School vouchers would likely cause a net reduction in segregation, as more people become comfortable living in mixed race neighborhoods. More importantly, ethnic minorities would benefit the most from a system of school vouchers. Giving inner-city minority children a better education would do more to dispel the remaining bits of racism than any amount of propaganda or social engineering.

The second problem is political. The teacherís unions have been reliable allies to the environmental and progressive movements. Going against their wishes would be hard Ė just like it has been hard for the Bush Administration to go against the wishes of Halliburton.

Carl Milsted is a senior editor for The Free Liberal.