The attitude reflected in Carrie Ulrich's memo at democracy forutah.com is that the public funds that currently support public schools belong to the public schools and that parents have no claim on them, and that education vouchers are therefore "welfare" payments. I submit that this is making the public schools into a false god.
Taxpayer funds that support education in Utah come from property taxes and income taxes paid by both private individuals and businesses. The justification for government using its coercive taxation power to support education is that everyone in society benefits from an educated citizenry, not only economically, but also in preparing children to assume their roles as citizens, in voting, serving on juries, serving in government office, and in knowing and obeying the laws.
Clearly, the public schools were created as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves. They are a means to provide education to Utah's children, the primary beneficiaries, which benefits their parents secondarily by assuming the cost of education they would otherwise need to bear, and the tertiary but significant beneficiary is society, which receives educated adults who pay taxes and obey the laws. These tertiary benefits are precisely why proposals to exclude the children of undocumented aliens from public schools are stupid and counterproductive, whether the children were born in the US (and are thus citizens) or not.
If the public schools utterly failed in their mission of educating and benefiting children, benefiting parents, and benefiting society, would there be a justification for spending public funds to operate them? No, of course not. Even though public schools provide employment for teachers and administrators, purchase utilities, furniture, computers and books, and in their construction provide business for construction contractors and building materials suppliers, those benefits would not be sufficient to justify the current funding of public schools through tax revenues. Those are quaternary or fourth order benefits, that alone are insufficient to justify school expenditures.
Indeed, those fourth order benefits are NOT lost if educational funds are spent on private schools, since private schools also need buildings, desks, computers, textbooks, utilities, and teachers. The benefits still accrue to society, but through private rather than public schools. While unions representing teachers would have to go through the process of seeking to represent teachers in each private school, that inconvenience in the transition period does not by itself justify restricting education funding to public schools. Union funding is an even more removed, fifth order benefit of public schools, and should not take priority over the higher and more direct levels of benefit. If union membership is a rational benefit to teachers in any school, public or private, why should we not expect that unions will be established eventually in private schools?
Since public schools are merely instrumental in nature, if alternative instrumental means can be used to obtain the primary, secondary and tertiary benefits of education of children, the fact that they do not involve public schools should not disqualify them from consideration. If an alternative instrument can provide the same benefits at even lower cost, and thus get more education benefits per dollar taxed and spent, then there is no reason to refuse to use them, solely to retain the fourth order benefits of public schools as institutions.
The fact is that the students and parents are the ones for whom public education moneys are collected and spent. Public schools are simply one means of serving them. All students and families receive this "welfare" in public schools. It is no less or more "welfare" if the funds are expended through some other instrument to achieve the same benefit to the target children and families.
Saying that public schools are not "welfare" but vouchers to parents would be is like saying that providing food stamps to families is "welfare" but feeding children of the same families lunch, breakfast and even supper at public schools is NOT "welfare". It is all an expenditure of taxed revenues to provide the benefit of feeding children. They are instrumentally different, but have no difference in their character as government aid to the children and their families. It is not more virtuous or democratic or equitable to feed children uniform meals at a school than it is to give their parents funds to obtain and prepare the food at home.
In the area of medical and health care, while there are limited numbers of government-sponsored clinics, most public expenditures for health care are made through programs that reimburse health care providers for services to the poor (MEDICAID) and to children of the working poor (CHIPS). There is nothing of superior virtue in offering health care in a government clinic, rather than through payment to a private doctor or hospital. The virtue inheres in getting medical care to those in need, not in the instrumentality.
The only moral issue is also the fiscal one: What is the most cost effective way to get the needed services to those we want to help? Medical aid, food aid, or education aid are all alike. The less the cost per recipient, the more recipients can be aided with available funds. Cost effectiveness is thus a direct measure of the moral value of an instrument for delivering needed public services.
If an educational voucher system can be devised that reduces the cost of getting educational services to many children, below the cost of public schools, then that instrumentality is more virtuous, because it is more beneficial. To place the fourth order benefits to an instrumentality, the public schools, above the first, second and third order benefits to society of education by other means that can benefit more children with less public cost, is to betray the purpose that the public schools were created to serve.
If we can use direct payments to families and allow them to purchase food and medical care, there is no moral or public policy reason why we cannot do the same for educational services.
Another aspect of the distorted "welfare" accusation is that the parents of all children are generally payers of the income and property taxes that support public education. Apartment renters are the source of revenue that pays the property taxes on a building, and they provide the income that is taxed by the property owner as well. Consumers also bear the ultimate burden of business costs, including property and income taxes paid by businesses. Thus, to claim that a family with children is somehow undeserving of getting the benefit of the very taxes they pay that support public education is to forget where tax revenues come from. It is a selfish usurpation of public revenues to say they "belong" to the government, and certainly seems to be contrary to the spirit of a political party that purports to represent the common man. When a family receives a voucher that it can use to purchase educational services, it is merely receiving back some of the revenues it has itself paid into the government funds. Those with higher incomes and property ownership and consumption have paid far more in than they will ever receive in vouchers. The poor often have paid in proportion to their income even more to government education funds. None of these families is "undeserving" of this benefit, since they are the source of the revenues, plain and simple. The government officials who administer the funds are supposed to be their servants, not their masters.
Another benefit to all from allowing some to use their allocated share of educational funds at private schools is that it will eliminate the need for elaborate and burdensome programs like "No Child Left Behind" that condition Federal revenues on complex measurement and penalty systems. If parents are given the option to either receive educational services for their children at public schools, or take a significantly smaller amount to a private school, in addition to their own funds, they will act as an automatic bellwether of the quality of public school education. A public school that fails its primary, secondary and tertiary missions will automatically lose its students and its revenue, while those that fulfill their mission have nothing to worry about. This is a much more efficient system than the one under NCLB and other schemes, and relies on the cumulative wisdom of many families, rather than artificial measures and time-consuming and controversial tests. A simple way to allocate Federal education funds would be to simply offer them at an increased level to states that give parents a more significant role in choosing schools, thus submitting to an automatic quality control system that uses the wisdom of thousands of parents.
Those advocates of public schools who claim that parents are too ignorant to choose schools are confessing that after a century of public education, the graduates of their public schools don't know a good school from a bad one. What a sad admission about the incompleteness of public education. If that were true, it would be urgent to give parents the option of other schools so this travesty could not be perpetuated in another generation.
Parents are allowed to choose the homes and clothing and food and churches for their children, to choose the cars they take their children in, the recreation and entertainment their children receive. In education, parents and children choose higher education from a myriad of options, along with methods to finance it. If they can be relied on to choose a university, why not a high school? And if a high school, why not an elementary school?
The argument advanced by the NAACP that vouchers will cause segregation by race is not logical. Private schools, like any accommodation offered to the public, cannot legally discriminate on the basis of race, no more than a restaurant or a hotel can do so. Neither can they discrminate in their hiring of teachers. The only area of preference allowed is religious, but that is based on the specific freedoms of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The fear of some people in Utah that the LDS Church will create parochial schools is nonsensical. The Church operated schools in the Utah Territory by necessity, but when the public schools were created, it donated facilities to the state. That is true of the University of Utah. The LDS Church is already stretched supporting BYU and its branch campuses. It has no desire to take revenues form its other endeavors to do what others already do well. Some individual Mormons have started private schools, but again those fall within normal regulation of businesses.
We should not forget that school discrimination by race was an action taken by racially prejudiced people who controlled public funds and public schools and allocated children among them on the basis of perceived race. Public schools as a body have the legacy of racial discrimination and hardly have the moral high ground in accusing private schools of potentially, maybe discriminating on the basis of race, even though it would be illegal to do so. Racial discrimination in public schools was only possible because of the monopoly control that bigoted school boards had over state-supported education. If parents rather than a bigoted school board have control over educational funds, they can create integrated schools and can ensure that funding is equitable regardless of race. Today's Utah parents, raised in Utah's non-segregated public schools, and taught by Utah's public school teachers, are not going to even seek to create or patronize racially segregated private schools. To claim otherwise is a slander on Utahns, without any evidence.
The one kind of racial or ethnic distinction that arises in public schools in Utah is based on disparity in income levels and thus the location of homes. Homes in higher priced neighborhoods tend to have nicer schools. To the extent that ethnicity corresponds to income, the result is that public schools in more expensive neighborhoods tend to have fewer children belonging to ethnic minorities. This is the existing situation in the public schools. By giving parents the choice of going to a public school, they will be freed from the necessity to buy a more costly home in order to get the best publicly financed education for their children. Home location will become less important, and the gradation between homes of different prices will become less steep over time. Neighborhoods will become more integrated than they are now, and public schools will therefore become more integrated. Education vouchers will therefore decrease or at most have a neutral effect on existing public school de facto ethnic segregation.