I am a Libertarian and an educator, and I support school choice.
Vouchers would better allow parents, particularly poor parents, to send their children to high-performing schools. Families would also have a better shot at finding schools that share their culture and values, be they religious, secular, or other. A voucher program would force schools to compete. Instead of receiving more funding and more attention for struggling, schools would lose students and the tuition payments attached to them when they fail to produce positive results. Likewise, schools would be rewarded with more enrollment for doing well, and would be forced to either improve or close when their results are substandard.
More charter schools would be great too. Free from the one-size-fits-all regulations foisted upon public schools, charters would have a greater opportunity to experiment and innovate educationally in our rapidly advancing world. Charters would be able to cater to individual students’ special needs, interests, and learning styles, and could also adapt their curricula to benefit families with lifestyles that deviate from the norm.
My mind runs wild when I imagine the chance to alter and update today’s educational systems in America and throughout the world.
Why do we only hire trained teachers to teach? Why not scrap education degree requirements and hire individuals who have actually worked in a diverse range of fields instead? Why not hire military veterans, foreigners, and senior citizens who can interactively share their incredible perspectives and experiences instead of only reading second-hand accounts and textbooks? Why must schools employ so many out-of-touch older teachers who have spent decades upon decades stuck in classrooms? Why not hire college students part-time to teach basic material and tell their juniors how much life changes when they take their next steps in life?
Why have teachers teach the same lessons to four different classes per school year? Why not economize the process by using films and lectures in an auditorium? Why give each unique child the same education in the first place?
Why force children to stay in classrooms all day long? Why not let them roam freely to explore their environment without supervision? Why not march them out into the world to meet and greet local townspeople, ask them how they spend their days, and realize that we shouldn’t take the simple things in life for granted?
I could go on and on. But my pedagogical daydreams are not the crux of this piece.
The point I’d like to make is that despite widespread support among small government advocates, and despite the fact that intuition suggests it is a free market reform, a case can be made to suggest that school choice is not a Libertarian solution at all.
Libertarians believe in laissez-faire Capitalism. That means hands off. In a free market, goods and services are owned, bought, and sold by private individuals and groups. Exchanges occur at will, not coercively via the hollow end of a gun. Libertarians reject the nanny state and instead proclaim let the buyer beware!
The most extreme iterations of Libertarianism suggest there should be no government at all as it is coercive in nature. More moderate Libertarians are comfortable with the state handling limited amounts of legislation, law enforcement, the defense of the nation, and a handful of other responsibilities.
But as far as education goes, there is quite a consensus across the Libertarian spectrum that education should ideally be privatized with no government involvement whatsoever (and especially not at the federal level). In other words, schools should operate like businesses where customers (in this case parents) shop for the best products and best deals until they are ready to voluntarily make a purchase (in this case paying tuition) or refrain from doing so altogether.
Public schools and Libertarianism simply do not mix. For something like a public school to exist in a Libertarian society, and I imagine many of these kinds of effectively public facilities would, funding would come from a community or city of willing participants, all of whom would have the option of withholding subsidy if they decided to. By definition, these facilities would not be public at all as the general public would not have the right to access them. Access would be granted only to those who own a stake in a given school as well as anyone else whom these stakeholders permit.
School choice does not remove the key component that separates the free market from central planning: funding via coercion.
In a school choice system, taxes would still be collected to pay for education. The major difference is that schools that receive public funding, which are largely public at the moment, may be privately owned as well. Privately owned charter schools and conventional private schools that accept vouchers would both be privately owned institutions on the receiving end of state-confiscated money.
I hate to say it, but the economic system in which the state operates private businesses is called, well, Fascism. And this could bring hardcore Libertarians to a difficult crossroads.
But it shouldn’t.
The truly privatized option is too far outside mainstream political consideration to be worth falling on our swords for. Therefore, we can either a support a mildly Fascistic school choice system, or we can support a patently Socialist public school system.
Politically, Libertarians are often more principled than pragmatic. When choosing between a warmongering Keynesian Republican and a warmongering Keynesian Democrat as a representative, many of us choose a third option, even though he or she lacks a realistic chance of winning, or abstain from voting altogether. In this instance, the realistic options are so bad and so inevitable that taking a principled stand is probably the right thing to do, however hopeless it may be.
But in other situations, we tend to go the pragmatic route. When choosing between legalized gay marriage or keeping marriage between a man and a women, many of us rebuked this false dichotomy and asserted the government should have no role in marriage to begin with. However, as Libertarians believe in equal protections under the law, we were overwhelmingly supportive of and satisfied with the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage throughout the United States. Our favorite option, zero government involvement in marriage, was virtually implausible, so the lesser-of-two-evils route was the way to go.
At the moment, school choice is more similar to the gay marriage dilemma than the Clinton vs. Trump debacle. Our favorite option, zero federal involvement in schools, is not going to happen any time soon, so our best bet is to support politicians and initiatives that go in the school choice direction.
Unlike getting the government out of marriage, school choice has a solid amount of support. The teachers unions and the politicians they control are a formidable obstacle. But enough of the public is persuaded by school choice to give us a real shot at taking another step towards the Liberty we desire.
Libertarians should not be cynical on the issue of school choice. We should be fired up.