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The widely noted appearance of John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets & America’s Schools reminds us again of the fundamental problem in American educational policy: the disposition in every state to fund the public schools at often lavish levels and to tax citizens accordingly, while at the same time providing little or no tax relief to parents who want their children to attend independent alternatives. Through a process that has been at work for decades, the state-owned institutions get bigger and more bloated, and the independent alternatives are squeezed increasingly, as in a vise. One jaw of the vise is the ever-increasing state and local taxes, especially property taxes, required to support the huge costs of state schools. The other jaw is the need for rising tuition in the independent schools. The upshot of these combined pressures on parental choice is an extremely unfair “competition” whose result is growth in the state-sector proportion of educational activity and shrinkage, often to the point of disappearance, of worthy independent-sector alternatives.

If the facts of the matter are as noted—and they are not in serious dispute—the question arises: Why should anyone care? What is at risk? In what sense are we justified in arguing, as I think we are, that this is a situation bad for education and bad for a free society?

The first and most basic bitter fruit of today’s policy is that it tends to create an effective monopoly for public schools in each state and city in the United States. And these monopolies exhibit normal monopolistic traits: inefficiency, high cost, and non-responsive behavior. Despite huge outlays, we are regularly told (a) that public education, especially inner-city education, is in crisis and (b) that the only solution for the crisis is greater outlay. At the very same time, great success stories in inner-city education occur routinely in the financially struggling but educationally productive independent schools that spend dramatically less on a per-student basis than do their public counterparts. The public elementary and secondary systems today seem to operate more for the benefit of the teaching unions and the administrative bureaucracies than for the students and parents they are supposed to serve. When one considers their monopolistic status—they need compete neither with independent options nor with the rest of the public budget, since typically they have stand-alone budget authority—this is not surprising.

A second crucial part of today’s crisis in public schools has to do with the relative absence in those schools of rigorous teaching about ethics and of insistence on related ethical behavior. The reasons for this are evident, though too seldom acknowledged. Through no fault of their instructors and staff, public schools are paralyzed as teachers of and insisters on serious ethical standards. Two basic social realities reduce the schools to lowest-common-denominator standards. First, since they are obliged to reflect the whole community and that whole community often does not have widely shared values, the public schools cannot speak clearly on many crucial issues. Second, through the debilitating intrusion of legal entanglement and challenge, by which small groups can so often frustrate even large and clear majorities, the public schools are often prevented from speaking forthrightly even on issues where a general public consensus exists.

In the vacuum thus created, we find predictable absurdities. So, for example, we dare not call upon religiously based moral precepts to counsel against premarital sex, but we must provide contraceptive or abortion advice even if it serves to legitimize promiscuity among fourteen and fifteen-year-olds and tramples on the moral beliefs of countless parents. By contrast, the independent school, precisely because it does not have to represent the whole of society, and because it is less susceptible to legal manipulation, can both teach and insist on clear ethical standards that reflect the school’s founding principles. The expectations thus created—before the fact, and freely accepted by all who enter—in turn create an atmosphere in which serious learning is possible. And that, no doubt, is a substantial part of the reason such independent schools, even in the most disadvantaged sectors of our cities, have had so much success with the students lucky enough to attend them.

The third reason for criticizing the public policy that invites and even necessitates the problems noted above is that it attacks freedom of educational choice for parents and children. The obvious—and entirely legitimate—state interest in education is that society’s children be educated to the full extent of their capacity, for the sake of both the child and the general public benefit of an educated citizenry. But that state interest does not lead necessarily to the conclusion that the best way to achieve this objective is a monopolistic public school system. Where it leads ideally is to the opportunity for parents individually and collectively to shape schools that reflect their most basic values and achieve society’s objective of a well-educated citizenry. The radical economic disadvantage that current policy imposes on these natural parental instincts basically thwarts them, and it saps society’s will to create and support a varied. competitive, lively array of educational alternatives. The most deadly dimension of this prevailing policy is that it hurts most the poor and otherwise disadvantaged elements of our society. The wealthy can afford, if sufficiently motivated, to pay taxes and to pay private school tuition as well. The middle class find it increasingly difficult to manage the combination. And the poor, whose children could most profit from the excellent educational environment typically provided by the independent school, find that option effectively closed to them.

What has been described is an educational problem of monumental proportions. It goes a long way toward explaining why we spend more and get less, and why the final educational “product” is increasingly suspect when compared to various international competitors. The sad truth of today’s policy is that for a large and growing portion of our youth there will be no effective education, and there will be no good way for those youngsters to catch up. Is there a way out of this situation?

Educational vouchers, given to parents in place of the massive direct subsidies pumped into public monopolies, could attack many of the educational problems here described. And, while attacking those problems quickly and forcefully, the process would also restore the creative freedom of Americans, especially disadvantaged Americans, to employ schools that reflect the values they most cherish and most want to pass on to their children. A voucher system, usable at public and private schools, would be a liberating opportunity for the independent educational sector, but it would not, as is often charged, constitute an attack on the public system. Indeed, a voucher program, by restoring vitality and a competitive environment, would probably be a strong incentive for public school improvement. Above all else, a voucher system would give instant hope to poor parents that they, by intelligent choice, would be able to ensure that their children would not be victims of an ineffective educational experience. This could have a dramatic impact on the current “pipeline” problem: disadvantaged youth never advancing far enough in pre-college education to get into the collegiate stream, which is increasingly the prerequisite for social and economic advancement.

And the downside for a voucher system? There is no downside, except for those tied by self-interest to the current state monopolies. They would unaccustomedly be forced to compete.

Quentin L. Quade is Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. The opinion he presents here is his alone.