Front Page Titles (by Subject) ROBERT L. CUNNINGHAM, Education: Free and Public? - New Individualist Review
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ROBERT L. CUNNINGHAM, Education: Free and Public? - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Education: Free and Public?
ONE IS RIGHTLY suspicious when he comes across what purports to be an easy solution to a complex of difficult problems. Knowing that a preference for shortcuts springs from deep-seated intellectual laziness, he is suspicious when told that all would change if only people would become pacifists, or abandon Aristotelian logic, or adopt the social credit system. Yet sometimes it is the simple solution which is the best solution. This may well be the case with regard to the major educational problems we face in the United States today: the religious-school problem, the problem of raising educational standards, and the segregation problem.
I propose in this paper to ask, and offer an answer to, two questions: Why do we need schools that are “free”? and, Suppose our schools were “free” but not “public,” what would be the consequences? To the first question I shall answer: We do not need schools that are “free,” but will find it impossible in the short run to persuade people that we do not. To the second I shall answer: The consequences of a system where most schools are “free” but “non-public” are such that our major problems will be solved, and no new problems of consequence will be raised.
WHY THEN DO WE need a free school system? Suppose we examine the hypothesis that, given parental rights and duties, there is no need for a free school system, and that government has only two roles in the field of schooling: the first that of a truant officer, of making a minimum standard of education compulsory; the second, the paternalistic role of paying the costs of educating those children whose parents are demonstrably unable to pay.
The first, truant-officer role of government, can be perhaps justified on the grounds that unless some schooling were compulsory, a significant number of parents would give their children little or no schooling—which would put the child at a disadvantage with respect to his peers, and cause external diseconomies, such as a lower level of political understanding and of productive power. Knowledge is the sort of good or value whose goodness is obvious only to those who have some, and if there are illiterate parents who do not appreciate the value of literacy, it is generally thought that government interference is justified in the name of the child and the “common good”; the grounds are that the whole social cost of sub-standard education is borne not by the uneducated individual and his family alone, but by society as a whole, for the fact is that the educated child confers political, material, and cultural benefits upon others.1 We must recognize, however, that by making schooling compulsory, we fly in the face of the principle stated by Thomas Jefferson, “It is better to tolerate that rare instance of a parent’s refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings by a forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of his father.”2 Whether one agrees with Jefferson or not, it is worth noting how far we have come from Jefferson’s notion of parental liberty and control—few of us feel any “shock of the common feelings”!
If one could make the assumption that the great bulk of families were capable of paying the costs of schooling for their own children, the only other role of government, if private charity proved insufficient, would be the paternalistic one of paying the costs of educating those children whose parents are demonstrably unable to pay; just as it now gives subsistence aid to those children whose parents are demonstrably unable to furnish food, clothing, and shelter.
Can one make the assumption that the great bulk of families are capable of paying directly the costs of educating their own children? One could, of course, point out that state and local taxes would be cut by 45% (which amount now goes to the public school system), thus leaving that much more money in the hands of individuals to pay the costs of schooling for their own children. One might point to the example of the Catholics who, though a lower-middle income class, built and paid for a system of parochial schools, costing them three-quarters of a billion dollars a year, that compares favorably with the public schools—even while a substantial proportion of their state and local taxes was spent to make education “free” for other people’s children. Again, one might point to the rise in the number of those who send their children to private schools, which indicates an increasing demand and ability to pay for private schooling; for in 1950, one in seven attended private schools, in 1960, one in 5.7, and if extrapolation is legitimate, one in four will attend private schools in 1970.
We have, I think, answered the first question: Why do we need schools that are free? The answer is: we do not. Yet, practically, there is no real likelihood that people can be persuaded that it is desirable to leave to private initiative the demand for schooling. The reasons are easy to see: conservative resistance to any kind of change, insufficient attraction to exercise of individual choice, the educationist lobby, egalitarianism, and the failure to see that even though public education is “free,” it must be paid for.
But even more important than all this is the fear that the great bulk of parents would not see the advantages of paying for at least as much schooling as their children receive now, and we should have a relatively uneducated American populace, with all the disadvantages this entails. But, one might answer, although parents now take schooling as a matter of course and give it little attention, under the proposal referred to, parental attitudes, interest, and sense of responsibility, would be greatly strengthened and developed. Consider an analogy: suppose that 50 years ago children’s clothing had been made a “free” commodity, given regularly to children out of government warehouses. Suppose that this had become institutionalized and a part of our American way of life. Now consider the difficulty one would have today in seeing that parents could be led to take an interest in clothing their children; the difficulty of convincing people that the principle of equal opportunity would not be irreparably damaged if rich parents purchased better clothing for their children than the poor could afford for their children; the difficulty of conservative inertia; the difficulty of arousing parents to overcome their distaste for assuming greater responsibility than before; the difficulty of making people see that “free” clothing must be paid for; etc.3
TO SUM UP: a system of schools that are non-free (and non-public) is impractical. But now our second question: Suppose our schools were “free” but not “public,” what would be the consequences? At present the great majority of our schools are free and public. Let us consider the nature and consequences of a system in which the majority of our schools were free but not public, a system in which government subsidizes the demand for but not the supply of education, a system in which government pays the costs of but does not supply or run schools. Such a system is not really a new sort of thing; in most of the countries of Western Europe, schooling is at least partly free and at most only partly administered publicly. And in the United States we have witnessed an application of free but non-public schooling in the G.I. Bill, under which a veteran attends, if he wishes, the private school of his choice, the costs of schooling being met out of public tax funds.
One might justify such a proposal by arguing this way: parents are compelled by law to send their children to school. If the capacities of parents to obey this law are unequal, provision should be made to equalize these capacities. But parents are relevantly unequal in respect of their ability to pay for schooling. So, because some of the benefits of educating children accrue to society as a “neighborhood effect,” in the form of more cultured, more productive citizens, society may find it to its interests to raise money to pay for the education of children through taxation.4
Now, the crucial considerations in arranging for the distribution of the educational funds are these two: first, when the government distributes goods, the distribution should be made impartially and equally to all in such a way that no irrelevant differentiating criteria such as those of race, color, or creed be made excluding conditions; second, the distribution should be made in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, the principle that the individual should be permitted to do for himself whatever he alone or in conjunction with like-minded people can do as well or nearly as well as some agency of government can. This is to say that acceptance of government control over the use of these funds should not be made an enabling condition for the very reception of the funds. Thus, those parents who give evidence of ability to reach the ends for which the compulsory law was instituted, either by educating their own children or delegating this function to a qualified schoolmaster in a non-government school, should not be excluded from sharing in the tax funds raised to guarantee an educated population. (Is there any reason to believe that a government-appointed schoolmaster is a better educator than a schoolmaster who has won the support of the parents whose children he offers to educate?)
One way of institutionalizing the distribution of an educational fund is by means of a “voucher” system. Suppose individual parents, in California let us say, were given a “voucher,” a certificate, for a certain amount (say $400, which is somewhat less than the normal per-pupil cost in California per year) which could be “spent” only by offering it as full or partial payment for schooling to a schoolmaster, who could then receive cash for it out of local and state tax funds. (Of course, in small, relatively isolated communities, the small size of the educational-consumer public might offer little scope for competition—and so the one school would likely remain “public.”) Suppose, too, that the majority of parents exercise their option of sending their children to a private school of their choice. What would be the consequences of a sort of “G.I. Bill” for all children down at the elementary and secondary levels?5
The first and perhaps most important consequence is that really effective control over the education of the child would be in the hands of his parents. Most parents who have $400 school vouchers to spend would give at least as much attention to choosing a school for their child (supplementing the voucher with money directly out of pocket, perhaps6 ) as they do to choosing a family automobile. And just as parents are now responsible for choosing food, clothing, and shelter for their children, so then they would be responsible for choosing the food, clothing, shelter, and education of their children. Of course, not all parents are now expert dieticians but they can and do come to know, and choose, perhaps with the expert advice and instruction of Dr. Spock and others, appropriate food for their children; so, too, parents could and would come to know, and choose, perhaps with expert advice and instruction, appropriate education for their children. Few are expert in medicine, but a man wants to choose his own doctor, even though he does not expect to tell the doctor what to do.
First, then, there is the advantage of extending, in an important way, the scope of parental free choice; the other side of the coin is the elimination of the possibility of dangerous public control, of the power of the state to dominate the formation of the minds of the young.7Only if there were: first, truly scientific answers to educational problems; and second, no danger that the authority to whom education is entrusted would fail to apply these answers; and third, no possibility of disagreement about what kind of human being is desirable—only if all these conditions were met might we not fear to entrust this power over the young to the state. But scientfic answers to educational problems, tested objectively, are not available;8 past and recent history does not encourage us to trust the state without reservation; and there is a good deal of disagreement at all levels about what sort of human being is ideal. The recent development and growth of psychological and psycho-pharmacological techniques which increase our power to mould men’s minds deliberately, should—at least when we’re in a 1984 mood—lead us to be concerned about the temptation to make use of these newly found powers. Consider too the possibilities of television—the possibility of an expanding uniformity, the spectre of a single All-Informing Eye teaching all the children of the land. Consider the possibilities of psychic “conditioning,” already feasible through “counseling and guidance.” In a unified public school system the temptation to use these new powers might conceivably sooner or later prove irresistible; and there is reason to want a disinterested institution to act as an impartial protector of men’s minds against the use of such powers—a function government at its various levels could perform were it not committed, through an often powerful educational bureaucracy, to the application of the then currently most fashionable educational curriculum, methods, and techniques.9 Most obviously, in a system in which almost all schools are private there would be less danger of domination by the “scientific” theories of some one group of educators.
Another consequence of the introduction of the voucher-system would be the relegation of the religious-school problem from the area of political decision to the area of private decision. The problem of paying for their religious-schools is giving Catholics, and others, increasingly great concern. They pay the whole cost of their own schools and a share of the far more expensive schooling of their neighbors’ children; and costs are rising on the local, state, and federal levels. This leads Catholics to ask for public funds of one kind or another to help ease the burden they have voluntarily adopted. Unless we can arrive at some substantially unanimous agreement on how to resolve this conflict, we shall likely enter a period of religious-versus-secular school conflict like that indigenous to France for generations.
It is difficult to see, given the mainly-public school system, a way out of this political and social predicament. People might sooner or later be brought to find it desirable to assist the parochial schools in a substantial way on grounds of self-interest, on the grounds that anyone who does a fairly decent job of educating the young serves the interests of the rest of the citizenry as a whole. But if more state aid were given, would not a degree of government control follow, such that, for example, an atheist or a Zen Buddhist would be effectively able to demand admission for his child at a tax-supported parochial school and be effectively able to demand that no religious doctrine be taught his child?
Some Catholics claim that they are being (and have been for over 100 years) treated unjustly according to the canons of “distributive justice.” They are being “penalized financially for the exercise of their constitutional rights,” so that they are not “free” to send their children to parochial schools, since “freedom at a price is not freedom.” It appears to me that there is some basis for this sort of claim, though perhaps the language of “penalized” and “freedom” is somewhat queer. Let us use an analogy. Suppose “the government” felt it necessary to raise the level of consumption of sweets by the population. And suppose that instead of handing out vouchers for the purchase of sweets, it decided to hand out chocolate bars to all who applied. And suppose also that some people preferred jelly beans to chocolate bars, but, since the government does not offer “free” jelly beans, those who prefer jelly beans must purchase them privately. This would presumably constitute a case of government’s “penalizing” those who prefer jelly beans, since the jelly bean eaters would be, in their own chosen way, seeing to it that their own consumption of sweets was raised. But if the charges of the jelly bean eaters and the Catholics be allowed, many other similar charges must be allowed. For socialized medicine, socialized housing, and the like, are as objectionable as are socialized schooling and socialized candy distribution: all entail practical limitations on the exercise of choice among alternative means to the same goal. This is to say that if I object to living in a particular housing project—but would qualify if I wished to live there—then I have a right in distributive justice to government support for the sort of housing I prefer (or “need”). And if I have a right to publicly supported recreation facilities, but happen to prefer Disneyland to Yosemite, I have a right in distributive justice to spend “my share” in Disneyland. Thus any government “welfare” measure, unless it meets with absolutely unanimous agreement in every detail, may be said to limit freedom, to “penalize” those who would choose otherwise.
But if the school-system were mainly private, it is quite likely that the reality of effective parental control in this area would be quite as important to most Protestants, and others, as to Catholics. Though both Catholics and Protestants realize that, given our government public school system, the application of the least-possible-common-denominator principle is imperative in the field of religion and morality, many Protestants and others would exercise their option in a mainly-private system by choosing a school that teaches a preferred religion and morality. For, of course, schools catering to the demand for religious, or irreligious, training would be developed in numbers approximating effective market desire for them—a development which displeases no one but those who are convinced that parents should be permitted no alternative to that offered by the wisdom of majority decision.
Another development to be anticipated would make Catholics stand out in the crowd less than they do at present. The parochial school system would be weakened and, at least in the long run, would tend to break down. For the parochial school, which is tied to a parish church in respect of location, size, and administration would prove to be less efficient in meeting the demands of Catholic parents than would the more adaptable private school. Catholic religious teachers would of course make the most efficient use of their limited numbers by concentrating on the teaching of religion and related subjects, since if the voucher system were introduced, only one of three schools serving Catholics could be wholly staffed by religious teachers.
And now, as one analyst of this proposal has put it, to go from the Gordian Knot of the church-related school problem to the Augean Stables of the school segregation issue. What would be the effects of the introduction of the voucher plan on the segregation issue?10
At the moment, the segregation issue is being decided on the basis of majority wishes: the majority of people in the United States have opted for compulsory integration; the majority of people in some Southern states have opted for compulsory segregation. It is characteristic of activities that depend on political decisions that if even the smallest change is to be made peacefully, it is necessary to convince a political majority to favor making the desired political decision. Now those who are interested in the fullest possible measure of human freedom find themselves in a dilemma when asked to choose between compulsory segregation and compulsory integration. But is such a choice necessary? Not under the voucher system, which would obviate such a choice. Under this system there would be white schools, and Negro schools, and mixed schools, in numbers approximating the desires of various elements of the local population. There would be no coercion; and for those who are willing to permit free speech and other civil rights even to those with whom they disagree, this is an important value.
There are no integrated grade or high schools in Alabama. It is therefore difficult to show the majority of Alabamans that discrimination solely on the basis of color is quite unreasonable. But under the voucher system those parents in Alabama, and of course there are some, who believe that the presence of an intelligent Negro child in class with their children will not only fail to lower but will likely improve the class standard, have no effective way of demonstrating their preference. Under the voucher system it would be a matter of convincing one’s next door neighbors. It would not be unreasonable to expect that if the voucher system were introduced, there would be, overnight as it were, substantially more integration in the South than can be anticipated by the use of coercion, which clearly tends to strengthen opposition and prejudice.11 The appropriate method of eradicating prejudice is not for the majority to coerce the minority, but for one person to use rational persuasion and moral suasion to convince another that the latter’s position is wrong-headed and the fruit of prejudice. I deplore segregation and racial prejudice, but it is not, in my view, the function of government to force the individual to act in accordance with my or anyone else’s views—whether about racial prejudice or whom to vote for—so long as he does not employ violence and physical coercion on others.
Further, the de facto segregation of Negroes and others in public schools by reason of the stratification of residential areas would tend to diminish when like-minded people, whether white or black, offered their vouchers to a schoolmaster who had demonstrated his ability to provide just the sort of education these parents want for their children.
With regard to the prospective consequences of the proposed competitive school-master system in improving school standards, one can be brief: “monopolies do not, whether in manufacturing, services, or education, provide incentives for increasing productivity or quality;”12 under the voucher system the forces of competition between schoolmasters would increase educational quality, variety, and innovation. Even if the prediction that the number of government schools would in time diminish drastically is wrong, the competition of private schools would offer the individual parent quite an effective way of expressing disapproval of what was done in some public school, namely by withdrawing his voucher from one schoolmaster and giving it to another.13 At present, an individual parent can express disapproval only as one of perhaps 50,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 voters for a school board, and has ordinarily little power to change educational policy which offers but one standard model for a community.14 The forces of competition would give parents the sort of schooling they want for their children: there would be schools which offer traditional academic training and schools which emphasize science, or the core curriculum, or modern languages, etc., in numbers approximating the proportions of those who want such education for their children; and if a parent wanted to send his child to a school for pickpockets, a law enforcing minimum standards, as we have today for private schools, would eliminate such an obviously unwise choice.
But, one might ask, if parents are faced with so wide a range of schools to choose from, how will they know which is best for their child? How will they make an intelligent, responsible choice? The answer is, of course, that they will not always know with certitude, as they do not now know precisely what quantity of what food, or which toy, or which musical instrument, is best for their child; but, of course, in all these latter cases, expert advice and the experience of others is available, and so also would it be with respect to schooling. If a man wanted a new car, it would take less of his time and attention if there were only one model in one make offered, but he would probably not find that car satisfying his desires or serving his purposes so well as one he chooses after examining a number of models in a number of makes. The myth that parents do not know anything about their own children, and would not act on this knowledge if they did, is an educationist’s myth, as fanciful and unreal as any ever dreamed of; but few myths are held and defended with greater vigor.
Further, educational economists tell us that the size and location of most public schools, based as they are on political considerations, are uneconomic and inefficient.15 Others go on to tell us that desirable innovations find their way into the school, if they ever do, only after an unconscionably long time.16 A mainly-private school system, based at least in part on profit, would tend to correct such manifestations of head-in-the-sand conservatism. It is characteristic of a monopoly, most particularly of a government-administered monopoly such as the public-school system, that stagnation sets in. (At the elementary and secondary levels, private schools, because of their higher costs and fear of being out of step, offer no effective competition.)
What would be the effect of such a program on the teacher? Better teachers would, under such a system, receive higher pay not based entirely on seniority and post-graduate “education” credits; there would, furthermore, be differential pay scales for different subjects, so as to make it possible to hire and retain those teachers, especially in the pure sciences, who are well qualified to teach.
A final advantage of the voucher system is described by C. S. Benson, the Harvard educational economist:
Further, it would be possible for a family to adjust its expenditures somewhat in accordance with the needs of its different children, e.g., unusually bright or slow children might be provided with special programs in schools that offered such work. It would be possible, furthermore, for a family voluntarily to increase its expenditures on elementary and secondary education at the time when it enjoyed an increase in income. For instance, suppose a head of a household receives a $500 increment in annual earnings, after taxes. If the family had already attained a reasonably comfortable standard of living, it might wish to spend as much as $250 of this gain on education. A child might be shifted, say, from a lower-cost to a higher-cost private school. Under our present system, however, there is no good way for this $250 to be spent on elementary and secondary education. Even the total increase in income would not pay for tuition in a good private school, and it would certainly not represent the cost of changing residence to a better school district. Instead of spending it on elementary or secondary education, the prudent family might put the sum aside for college education. Of course, school taxes might go up, but they would be unlikely to increase by $250 in a year. In short, certain families might want to use part of their gains in income for the purpose of education in amounts substantially in excess of an annual rise in tax rates, provided they thought that they were getting what they wanted in education. The present system does not have a place for this gradual, voluntary rise in educational expenditures.17
WE HAVE SEEN now the desirable consequences. But are there undesirable consequences? Let us see. The main objection now made against private schools is that they are divisive. This charge has certainly never been documented, but it is a common theme of educationists, who speak of private schools as “inherently undemocratic” by contrast with the “democratic public school system.” Dr. James B. Conant has said, “To my mind our schools should serve all creeds.” (Conant’s statement can mean either: (1) all people should go to the public schools, whether they are satisfied with them or not; or (2) all people should be satisfied with the public schools.) He goes on, “the greater the proportion of our youth who attend independent schools, the greater the threat to our democratic unity.”
The nature of a desirable democratic unity is certainly difficult to assess, being of not-too-much, not-too-little variety: we want “unity,” but not “conformity;” we want “differentiation,” but not “divisiveness.” And how much of a “threat to democratic unity” should we permit? Should these “threats” be absolutely prohibited? After all, free speech is divisive; freedom of the press is divisive; political democracy itself, with candidates who actually compete against each other, is divisive.
It is generally accepted that in any stable society there must be a set of common ideas and assumptions without which even rational discussion and persuasion is impossible; and that without commonly held moral beliefs, maintenance of order will require extreme coercion. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to expect that the majority opinion which in a limited area guides democratic government should, in order to avoid circularity and stagnation, be independent of the control of government in its formation. Otherwise, there will be a tendency to prevent a minority from trying to alter majority opinion—and to do this is to cut the roots of progress, to destroy the principle of minority opposition by which civilization has grown and spread. “. . . the conception that government should be guided by majority opinion makes sense only if that opinion is independent of government. The idea of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires therefore the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of individuals are formed.”18 Consider an example: the judgment of the desirability of the United States’ maintaining its membership in the United Nations or in NATO or in SEATO is a judgment that should be made, no doubt, on majority grounds. But suppose a measure of government control such that the great majority of children are indoctrinated to hold that membership in the UN, NATO, SEATO, etc., is in the best interests of the U. S. The majority at some one moment could use a unified public school system to impose its position on the minds of the young, there would be no real possibility of change, even if conditions change.19
Applying these principles to the controversy over the private schools as a threat to democratic unity, and assuming that it is generally true that schools are a mirror of society, it follows that, unless substantial evidence is forthcoming, unless it could somehow be shown that private schools will not reflect parents’ wishes or that parents will wish to train their children in un-American ways, there may be grounds for wondering, but no grounds for acting as though private schools are a threat to desirable democratic unity. Since there are far more historical precedents for being careful to avoid a school system that is nationally controlled, one should want to make very sure that a minority having doubts about the wisdom of a majority decision is not to be denied an opportunity to use rational discussion and persuasion to alter the conviction of the majority. This may appear to be an exaggeration, but consider an editorial in the New Republic (March 20, 1960) which informs us that “to accept the principle of equal support of public and private schools out of public funds is to abandon the mission of the state . . . the State is committed to exerting a secular, unifying egalitarian force.” This appears to me very like the analysis by John Stuart Mill of “state education,” which, however, he deplores:
That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as anyone in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity of opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power of the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocrat, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the state should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.20
In sum, a mainly-private school system seems to destroy the balance between democratic unity and democratic diversity as judged by the rule-of-thumb: avoid what tends to make rational discussion more difficult. Thomas Gilby, O. P., has said, “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” There is no evidence that a school system where parents have a choice between alternative types of schooling, will fail to mirror our society as it is, or make rational discussion more difficult. “It is unlikely that private demand will purchase, or that private supply will offer, kinds of education which threaten or even marginally undermine the beliefs we hold and the knowledge and skills we deem essential. . . . An enterprise which emphasized instruction in the Koran or the Communist Manifesto would be unlikely to be established or, if established, to endure.”21
Another objection is raised by Benson:
The compelling argument for maintaining the present pattern of public operation is, we believe, found in the imperative of social mobility. In this country (in Dr. Conant’s words) there is a “devotion to the ideals of equality of opportunity and equality of status.” The ideal that every child have an equal start in life is impossible of close attainment, but the public schools have been the major instrumentality for moving as far as we have toward that goal. It seems clear, moreover, that quality of education is becoming a more important determinant than before of an individual’s income and status. The justification for public operation of the schools rests, then, on the control of the public school system in preserving social mobility.22
This objection is quite obviously based on the egalitarian assumption that everyone should have an equal start, and takes the dog-in-the-manger attitude that if everyone cannot have the better, then no one shall. It is not said that some would receive a worse education than any do now, but rather that not all would benefit to the same degree. (Under the voucher system, the exchange value of vouchers would differ from community to community, but there is no reason to believe that there would be a wider range of expenditure than exists now: in 1959-60, the per-pupil cost in Arkansas was $191, but was almost three times that amount, $559, in New York.) Some parents would supplement the voucher directly out of their own pockets, and thus give their children a better start in life.23 Egalitarians, however, look at matters this way: if a child is born having great natural talents, well and good—this is natural—and he can eventually develop and use these talents for the common welfare. Yet the useful qualities which are welcomed when a result of a person’s natural endowment are suspect when they are the result of circumstances such as a good home and intelligent parents. Of course, we believe that the family is so valuable because we believe that as a rule parents can prepare their children better for a satisfactory life than can anyone else. (If we did not believe this, we would likely follow the example of the Russians, who take children out of the family at a very early age and put them into State nurseries for the preferred moral and intellectual training to be got there.) But we seem not to be aware that “there is, indeed, good reason to think that there are some socially valuable qualities which will be rarely acquired in a single generation but which will generally be formed only by the continuous efforts of two or three.” We are simply not willing to admit that “belonging to a particular family is part of the individual personality, that society is made up as much of families as of individuals, and that the transmission of the heritage of civilization within the family is as important a tool in man’s striving towards better things as is the heredity of beneficial physical attributes.”24 It is as unreasonable to take away from parents a good chance of providing their children with a head-start in cultural and educational qualities as it would be to take away from parents the chance of providing their children with a head-start because they were given a finer moral training.
One might now reasonably ask: why is it that people so devoted to freedom as were our Founding Fathers did not develop a mainly-private school system? The answer is that of course no large-scale educational system was developed until the second third of the 19th century—and a public-school system was then developed for a number of reasons which have little or no application today: first, the scope of mass-immigration made defensible the concept of the public-school as a “melting-pot;” second, the very technical administrative difficulties of a publicly-supported private school system, of handing out vouchers to individuals, and checking their use, made such a system impractical (today, of course, an I.B.M. engineer could outline a rational approach to this problem on his day off); third, Catholics under the leadership of some bishops made the fatal mistake of fighting the school question as a Roman Catholic question rather than as a question of a desirable exercise of parental rights;25 fourth, there was a measure of belief among the most influential Protestant bodies that public schools could be Christian though non-sectarian—a belief that proved unfounded, especially once the courts began, around the turn of the century, to defend minority rights in this sphere; fifth, the “natural monopoly” argument was much stronger in earlier days: a given locality can support only one school, and that had best be publicly administered and finally, the intellectuals of the day looked upon the Prussian public-school system as an ideal model.
UNDER THE SYSTEM proposed, whereby the financing of education is a government function but the educational institution itself is privately administered, what happens to higher education? According to Friedman and Hayek, we must first of all distinguish between three sorts of education beyond the highschool: first, education for leisure and leadership, or liberal education; second, vocational education offered in professional schools—those which train dentists, veterinarians, beauticians, etc.; third, advanced research at the “frontiers” of knowledge. Different things must be said of each, though it is often admittedly difficult to distinguish between them in practice.
What about college-level liberal arts education? Limited by the wealth of the community, a case for subsidizing the demand for this sort of education can be made along the same lines as the case for subsidizing the demand for elementary and secondary education—though, of course, the case for financing education for all at some lower level is stronger than it is at a more advanced level. Here the student’s family would be given a voucher for a limited sum, which could be supplemented by the family’s own resources, scholarships, etc.—a sort of G.I. Bill extended to all. There would tend to be fewer if any State administered liberal arts schools remaining. And the limitations of this program would be imposed by the limitations of the material and human resources of the community.
What should be the functions of the State with respect to vocational education? Let us look a little more closely at, say, the training of a dentist. A young man is attracted by the material (and, conceivably, non-material) rewards of dentistry. He must invest a certain number of years, and a certain amount of money, but when he gets his certification, he gains the rewards of his investment. As things now are, it is usually a great deal easier for the wealthy young man to invest the requisite time and money; it would appear desirable that loans (analogous to equity capital) be made available, in the absence of private investors, by some federal institution which could offset this advantage the wealthy have; this would tend to increase competition and promote the full development of human resources. Note that it is loans, not gifts, which are in issue—for since the major part of the advantages of such professional education (those which increase the individual’s economic productivity) accrue directly to the individual in greater earning power, it is undesirable that government make this sort of education free, for that would tend to promote overinvestment in human beings.
What, finally, should be the functions of the State with respect to advanced research in all the fields of knowledge? It is clear that major contributions to knowledge are made at advanced-research institutions—universities which provide education as a by-product of research. Unlike the benefits which training in dentistry confers, the benefits which the research-scholar’s work produces do not accrue to him personally. “The benefits that a community receives from its scientists and scholars cannot be measured by the price at which these men sell their particular services, since much of their contribution becomes freely available to all.”26 Financing such research may be a desirable function for government when private resources are not wholly adequate. And here it is a matter of a gift to an institution or to an individual, since success in this field does not usually bring proportional financial returns to the institutions or individual researchers.
TO TURN TO the immediately practical order, what chance does the voucher plan have of achieving recognition and approval? There are some formidable obstacles, most notably the road-block the educationists are likely to erect in the way of a plan which would do so much to weaken their power and prestige. As Albert Lynd wrote a few years ago, “The educationists have copper-riveted one of the neatest bureaucratic machines ever invented by any professional group in any country since the priesthood of ancient Egypt.” Then consider the difficulty of rousing the interest of the 20th-century-liberal intellectuals, who concern themselves with some sorts of infringements of individual liberty but favor over and over again increasing the role of government vis-a-vis individual initiative—though if this group ever came down on the side of effective parental choice, the battle would be over. And conservatives may be of two minds: opposition to innovation and change will struggle with the desire to roll back the influence of government in an important area of national life. Of course, both Catholics and Protestants could be expected to approve on the grounds that an extension of parental initiative is desirable; but some Protestants would dislike the idea that Catholics would no longer be at a financial disadvantage. Negroes would have good reason to favor the plan if they were shown that their status would gradually improve, but the fact that the plan was first introduced in the South is a strike against it; and they might prefer seeing coercion used on their side for a change.
There are, however, two quite hopeful straws in the wind: first, the current interest in Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s “scholar incentive program” to strengthen the private colleges and universities in New York, and second, the interest in strengthening private schools evidenced by the number of congressional bills (163 from 1953 to 1960) for reducing taxes by an amount proportionate to tuition costs. Further, since the voucher plan is quite open to being introduced gradually on the local level, and since costs are rising, economy—attainable by giving as an alternative to public schooling a voucher for an amount less than estimated public school costs—may offer an additional motive for its introduction, at least in those areas where Catholics are not numerous.
To conclude, it may be that the current debates over our various educational problems in the United States will lead increasing numbers to consider seriously proposals like the voucher-system, systems which remove most educational choice from the sphere of yes-or-no political decision. The test of the desirability of considering such systems is not speedy enactment but the contribution they make to orderly thinking about basic issues of educational policy. And perhaps what David Riesman has said in another context may prove to be the case here: “Radical and what were previously regarded as ‘impossible’ changes come about almost instantaneously once people discover that views they had previously regarded as unacceptable or idiosyncratic are in fact widely shared.”27
[* ] Robert L. Cunningham is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco, and the author of numerous philosophical articles in scholarly journals.
[1 ] Cf. J. C. DeHaven, Some Economic Features of Public Education, p. 3ff. H. R. Bowen points out that price exclusion (unwillingness to pay for some benefit leads to exclusion from its use) is as impractical for the social benefits of education as for the benefits of national defense. Toward Social Economy (New York: Rinehart, 1948), pp. 172-3.
[2 ] Saul Padover, Jefferson (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), p. 196.
[3 ] Adapted from O. B. Johannsen, Private Schools for All (1959), p. 7.
[4 ] Cf. W. Gorman, “A Case of Distributive Justice,” in Robert Gordis, et al., Religion and the Schools (New York: The Fund for the Republic, 1959).
[5 ] Cf. esp. Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in Education,” in Robert A. Solo, ed., Economics and the Public Interest (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955), and Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), ch. 7; and V. Blum, Freedom of Choice in Education (New York: Macmillan, 1958).
[6 ] C. S. Benson, The Economics of Public Education (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 324: “There is evidence to show that high expenditures on education offer real, not fictitious, improvements in quality, and that there is no tendency for quality to level off as the support level goes up.” See also Lorne H. Woollatt, The Cost-Quality Relationship on the Growing Edge (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1949).
[7 ] Cf. Arnold J. Toynbee, Study of History (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), Vol. IV, pp. 196-97. The degree of seriousness of the danger is no doubt a function of the degree of unified federal control. The federal government in the United States, according to Clayton D. Hutchins of the U. S. Office of Education, is currently spending $2.5 billion annually to support educational programs of various sorts.
[8 ] It is perhaps worth noting that we should be grateful that the firing of the Russian Sputnik shook the confidence of educators and their clients alike that educational problems were, in the main, licked.
[9 ] Cf. F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 380-81.
[10 ] For an excellent analysis, cf. Friedman, op. cit.; and for an interesting sketch of the philosophy behind, and the working of, the “Virginia Plan,” see Leon Dure, “The New Southern Response: Anatomy of Two Freedoms,” Georgia Review, Vol. XV, No. 4, 1961, and his “Individual Freedom v. ‘State Action,”’ Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer, 1962; for criticism of the plan see H. C. Dillard, “Freedom of Choice and Democratic Values,” in the same issue of VQR. For data on the working of the plan, see “The Freedom of Education Plan,” in The Reporter, Oct. 11, 1962.
[11 ] “Resegregation,” according to the estimates of some Southern educators, has brought about a state of affairs in which there are more all-Negro schools in the South now than there were before the U. S. Supreme Court’s desegregation decision of 1954—the desegregation order has led to less mixing of races than before. Cf. U. S. News and World Report, December 4, 1961, pp. 86-7.
[12 ] DeHaven, op. cit.; in Benson’s opinion: “there is a lack of genuine diversity in educational programs and practices.” But “. . . without diversity it is extremely difficult to test whether some innovation in method or staffing pattern is efficient. . . . Lack of diversity would seem to prevail on two counts. First . . . the public schools are local monopolies and hence cannot in fairness make any kind of radical change which would be repellent to some group of parents. Second, invention and innovation normally cost money. They are processes involving risk, in the sense that the ‘payoff’ is uncertain, with respect to whether any good thing will occur, and, if so, when it will occur. It follows that expenditures on development, broadly considered, are hard to defend against the attacks of the zealous skeptic. But school authorities, as we have said, must continually be ready to defend expenditures against the opposition (a) of non-parents and (b) of parents who are quite satisfied with the existing program.” Benson, op. cit., pp. 326-27.
[13 ] One may now go to the principal or to the superintendent with complaints, but as school districts become larger, access to the administrator becomes more and more difficult. And as Benson says, “. . . physical access to the office of the administrator is not equivalent to access to the man.” Ibid., p. 228.
[14 ] “He can work through cumbrous political channels to promote change. As anyone who is familiar with schools knows, change will be slow. There is reason to suspect that change in public schools is necessarily slow by the fact of public operation. In short, measurable change will occur only after the parent’s child has passed beyond that part of the program with which the parent was dissatisfied.” Ibid., p. 325.
[15 ] Cf. Procter Thomson. “Free Public Education,” School Review, 1955.
[16 ] Cf. Paul R. Mort and Francis G. Cornell, Adaptability of Public School Systems (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1938).
[17 ] Benson, op. cit., pp. 327-28.
[18 ] Hayek, op. cit., p. 109.
[19 ] Cf. F. Lilge, “The Politicizing of Educational Theory,” Ethics, April, 1962; and C. Bay says: “It is the ability to resist manipulation I wish to see increased, and this ability can best be developed in institutions in which not impartiality but controversy is fostered. . . . On this score I swear to the wisdom of Socrates.” The Structure of Freedom (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 98.
[20 ] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947), p. 108.
[21 ] Thomson, op. cit.
[22 ] Benson, “Rebuttal,” op. cit., pp. 328-29. First italics mine.
[23 ] The educational tax level would tend to rise to the level at which those parents who constituted a majority of the whole population voting on educational funds would pay no additional subsidy to the schoolmaster.
[24 ] Hayek, op. cit., p. 90.
[25 ] Cf. Zachariah Montgomery, “The School Question” (Washington: Gibson Bros., Printers, 1886), esp. p. 45 ff.
[26 ] Hayek, op. cit., p. 283.
[27 ]Atlantic Monthly, April, 1961, p. 43.