The Struggle Between Parental Freedom And Educational Finance Monopoly

The Struggle Between Parental Freedom And Educational Finance Monopoly

Educational finance monopoly is the radical alternative to parental freedom in education. These are opposite educational funding methods. They have to do entirely with this question: if there are tax dollars devoted to education to achieve a public good, how are those dollars actually assigned to schools? That is the question. One answer is educational finance monopoly or EFM. EFM assigns all K-12 education-dedicated tax dollars through monopolistic bureaucratic structures at state and local levels, and only to public schools. The immediate educational effects of this are twofold: the public schools sheltered by these monopolistic financing methods are deprived of the normal human incentives to excel; and parents who want to choose independent educational alternatives are forced to pay a large and often impossible financial penalty for such a choice. The penalty: paying ever-increasing taxes for the public schools and ever-increasing tuition for any alternative selected.


The negative implications of those two effects are inescapable: the public schools, absent a comparative and competitive environment, tend to underproduce qualitatively; personnel and program proliferation characteristically occur; vested interests grow up around the monopoly financing structures to ensure they remain intact; political alliances form for this purpose; poor educational performance in the artificially-protected public schools becomes the (ironic) justification for increased funding, and citizens tire of such budgeting; and, in the meantime, most independent schools, often performing superlatively, are under constant financial pressure and in constant peril.


An obvious alternative to EFM is to place some or all education-dedicated tax dollars in parents’ hands, thus creating choice without financial penalty. Forecastable positive impacts: public schools, subject to comparison and competition under this new arrangement, will be stimulated to excel and to economize; independent options will be encouraged; citizen confidence in budgetary processes will be restored; and family integrity will be strengthened because families will actively choose their child’s school, public or private, and commit themselves to the chosen schools. Such bonds flow from the “natural moral contracts” forged by free associations.


It is truly true that given its automatic monopolistic characteristics and its negative impacts, there is no objective defense for EFM, just as there is no downside for parental freedom in education. But if that is true, why is there such a tortuous path to change? How do we overcome the obstacles to achieving parental freedom? How can we help people see the many steps needed in order finally to liberate America’s parents? There will be beginning efforts which fall short of complete victory. But if properly understood, each of those steps will be seen as a step toward the ultimate success of parental freedom through school choice without financial penalty.


The first part of the answer to the question of how to overcome the obstacles is to understand that there are long-standing, deeply entrenched, and very well-funded vested interests who want to maintain the status quo, and there are strong political liaisons formed by those vested interests to keep the status quo in place. The vested interests and their political liaisons, and their “altruistic corollaries” (PTA members, et al. who, imagining themselves to be performing a social good, align themselves with EFM), employ a variety of errant but effective arguments. The unsuspecting objects of such pseudo-arguments are the altruistic corollaries themselves and the general citizenry, vulnerable as they are to certain kinds of argumentative manipulation. And that is the second explanation for the long, arduous path to parental freedom. The first is the presence of vested interests able to employ social inertia; the second is the susceptibility of altruistic corollaries and the general citizenry to that manipulation because they are themselves weighed down by social inertia. And that is a basic point of this essay: for reasons to be developed shortly, social inertia for these purposes can be understood as creating a predisposition to be confused.


When Party A thinks he has a perfect argument but finds himself unable to convince other parties of his argument, that usually means the argument was not perfect at all. Party A’s position and conclusion finally might be right, but incompletely argued, explained and defended. Or, his position and conclusion might be wrong, based on erroneous factual premises or flawed logical constructions. “Back to the drawing boards” is the correct prescription under either circumstance. But sometimes one’s inability to convince another party has nothing to do with imperfections in the argument. It can derive instead from the inability of the other party to receive the truth, even when it is presented compellingly. If the truth has the effect of threatening someone’s self-interest, for example (‘Don’t talk to me about the virtues of automobiles – I manufacture buggy whips’), that someone may have great difficulty seeing, let alone embracing, the truth. We know that it is a key part of educational finance monopoly’s defense against parental freedom via school choice without financial penalty. Many large and well-funded groups, educational unions and bureaucratic structures for example, have a material stake in the status quo, imagine that stake to be at risk if parental freedom breaks out, and stand fast against school choice. This is not good, this is not heroic, but it is easily understood and easily argued against. The essentially perfect argument for school choice – that it is advantageous for parents, for youth, for taxpayers, for independent schools and even for public schools when they are seen as educational providers – will not necessarily overcome the self-interest of those who imagine themselves threatened by it, but it will be compelling to any objective third parties able to look beyond the status quo and see the truth.


It is very clear that much of the resistance to breaking EFM and liberating America’s parents does not come from directly self-interested opposition. It comes, rather, from ordinary citizens who, though not materially benefiting from the status quo, are not easily able to judge it objectively. They may be thought of as victims of “social inertia.” As I am using it, that term simply refers to the tendency of a policy long in place to stay in place, especially if it has developed around itself strong vested interests which want it to continue. That social inertia takes its primary form in the hearts and minds of people who imagine that because something is it should be and who are thus predisposed to it. They are vulnerable to those who know how to manipulate that predisposition by effective use of smoke screens or false arguments. Heaven on earth for those who want to defend the status quo is to achieve in the minds of most citizens the confusion of ends and means so that one means to a given end becomes equated with the end itself and at that point becomes a thing beyond criticism and evaluation. The willingness of many Americans to use the term “public education” or “public schools” interchangeably with the word education is a classic and destructive case in point. Public schools rightly understood are a major alternative method or means to the good end of education for youth. As a means they can be tested and compared with other means such as independent schools or home schooling. But if one begins to talk of public schools as if they were the end rather than an alternative means – to say, for example, as many business groups around the nation have been led to say, “We want to improve our state’s education, so we will help the public schools” – then one has lost the ability to evaluate and compare them. Indeed, at that point, the aspirant “reformer” has become part of the problem, rather than the solution.


That is a fundamental component of the social inertia which helps to hold educational finance monopoly in place. It reflects a mix of the “myth of the common school,” nostalgia, and confused argumentation. And it means that initial efforts to change such a deeply-rooted policy as EFM are likely to fall short. If we understand this and understand that mobilizing forces sufficiently powerful to overcome social inertia and its manipulation by well-funded vested interests is a long term task, then we will understand that preliminary falling short is not “failure” in any normal sense. Such efforts, in truth, should be seen as necessary steps toward the ultimate objective. If they understand the conditions of social inertia which help to maintain educational finance monopoly, advocates of school choice in any given state will not be surprised when early efforts do not bring final victory. And they will not be frustrated and thus deflected from their goal: parental freedom in education, that just condition wherein parental capacities match parental responsibilities.


The degree to which social inertia predisposes people to be confused, and thereby helps maintain the status quo, can be demonstrated dramatically by examining certain of the current, new smoke screens employed to confuse the issue of educational funding and to maintain EFM. They are in and of themselves analytically hollow, precisely misdirections whose fallacies can be seen easily if looked at critically. If we ask how then they can be effective, we will be forced to refer back to the phenomenon of social inertia and the predisposition to be confused. Various writers have catalogued many of the major standard smoke screens and red herrings employed to block change away from monopoly and toward parental freedom. When I say the following are new, my point is that there will always be “new” adaptations of old smoke screens, designed to fend off parental freedom’s latest attempts to break finance monopoly, as vested interests strive to maintain their control over the funding spigot. So do not be misled when, having blown away one batch of smoke screens, a new batch appears, and confuses some onlookers. That will happen until the predisposition to confusion itself has been remedied because the spell of social inertia has been broken.


The experience of other modern democracies with school choice provides great evidence of how well that school funding system works, how natural it is, how parent-satisfying it is, and how educationally fruitful at relatively moderate cost it can be. It also shows how parental freedom in education works as a force for social peace rather than for the kind of divisiveness with which EFM defenders attempt to saddle it in the United States. In religiously and ethnically diverse Holland and Belgium, for instance, the dynamic for peace from school choice flows from the fact that parents do not have to see their child forced into any one-size-fits-all monopolistic educational structure. As a result, they need not rebel against such monoliths, as many Americans are today rebelling against the public school monopolies that they confront. And of course, the vast experience of other nations with school choice literally explodes the contention, one of the classic smoke screens, that choice is “experimental, untried, perhaps even radical” and therefore to be avoided at all costs in the United States.


Despite the plentiful, graphic and compelling power of the experience of other democracies with school choice, attempts on the part of school choice advocates in the United States effectively to use that evidence have been largely unavailing. Excellent new studies establish the analytic and analogous relevance of school choice in other democracies. But these and many other forays have not yet succeeded in making foreign experiences an effective part of the argument for school choice in the U.S. One reason for this is the success of a particular smoke screen which should be dispelled once and for all. It goes along these lines: “Those other democracies don’t use vouchers; but they do have good educational systems; therefore, vouchers cannot be the answer and you should not waste your time on them.” There is a radical confusion of one means (vouchers) with a great end (parental freedom in education). There follows a sad but true example of how this smoke screen claims its victims.


Most modern industrialized democracies provide wide school choice to parents. This is done in a variety of ways ranging from religious choice within the state system to choice of any school, state or independent. Splendid model approaches are found, for example, in Denmark, Holland and Australia. These are not “voucher” systems, of course, because they do not have the problem of court-imposed church-state complications which, in the U.S., necessitate indirect systems of aid to parents rather than to schools.


But that is an entirely incidental and unimportant distinction. The crucial fact is this: in such enlightened nations as those cited, parents in complete freedom decide where educational tax money will go. The money follows the parent and the child, just as it will with U.S. vouchers when finally the stranglehold of EFM is broken. Thus, in an American sense there is no educational monopoly in most advanced democracies. EFM means not only state control of finance, but the assignment of those dollars only to state-owned and state-defined schools. By contrast, in Holland, for example, approximately 69% of K-12 students are enrolled in independent schools – because, absent a monopoly’s artificial restrictions, parents are free to choose. Thus, we see a classic misdirection, a red herring throwing people off the track: the use of the notion of vouchers as if it were the only form under which school choice for parents could exist when obviously it is only an accidental derivative of American constitutional complications. Let us once and for all dispel that smoke screen, once and for all recognize the powerful relevance to the U.S. of this fact: modern democracies around the world happily employ parental freedom in education with excellent results. So should we.


Missing from such self-defeating and circular conclusions is any realization that the supply of empty seats and independent schools is not a static number but a dynamic one. It will ebb and flow precisely in response to dollars available to secure such seats. Put dollars in a pipeline marked “parental freedom to choose” and over time see the supply of seats grow – and, at the same time, see the responsiveness of the public schools grow. Supply of new schools and seats could be expected from churches and neighborhood organizations anxious to rescue their youngsters – the same spirit which maintains current independent schools against all funding odds. Nonprofit and for-profit charter-type schools could be expected, as well, if they were able to compete against traditional private schools. Supply, killed by EFM, can be reborn by school choice without financial penalty. To say “no choice now because limited supply now” is, in effect, to reward EFM for one of its worst results by ensuring the continuance of that humanly destructive condition.


There are many smoke screens in the same category: finance monopoly creates a problem, and then its defenders use the problem to keep the problem – creating status quo in place. Consider the constant assertion that school choice will “break the bank.” Obviously, there is nothing in school choice as such that says anything about how much tax money should be spent on education. The only thing intrinsic to school choice regarding tax money is this: because school choice would break the finance monopoly, by putting tax dollars in the hands of parents and guardians, it would bring rationality, comparison, and competition to the assignment of those dollars. Thus, school choice as such inevitably would introduce a principle of efficient use of taxes, as compared to the irrational and unresponsive monopoly now existing.


If this is true, then any “break the bank” allegation can mean only one thing: it rests on the unreal assumption that choice would a) keep all current high costs in place, and b) add school choice costs on top of them, and, thus c) threaten to break the bank by increasing taxes. Is it not time that Americans recognize this for the self-serving absurdity it is and recognize they are being held hostage by the very destructive system which they need to change? Obviously, there is no reason to accept the premise that all current costs must be kept in place if, by expanding school choice without financial penalty, educational funding policy encourages a shift of students out of the higher-cost state sector and into the lower-cost independent schools. Over time, the American government, freed of its hostage status, would decide how much to spend on education and how best to apportion it between state-owned public schools and parents choosing independent schools. When finally full reason in public policy and full freedom for parents has been achieved, parents would do all the apportioning in the act of choosing a school, public or independent, as they do now in more fortunate democracies around the world.


Thus, we see the “break the bank” allegation precisely for what it is: a manipulative scare tactic which will be exposed as a fraud once Americans are able to look at it without the smoke presently surrounding it. An especially repugnant variation on the “break the bank” smoke screen, is the use of the “Abstract Perfect” to kill the “Practical Good.” When a true school choice advocate objects to a particular school choice proposal because it is judged inadequate, one can quarrel with the judgment but be confident that the intention is to make school choice better, not to kill it.


But when an opponent of school choice says, “We can only have it when it is perfect, when, for example, the poorest child is able to buy the most costly private education – but of course, I doubt we can afford that” – then we can be reasonably certain that the intention is to bury school choice, not praise or improve it. The specific method for killing it in the illustration given: coupling the “abstract perfect” with “break the bank” to kill the practical good. This is a sad and severe illustration of how EFM can and does hold citizens and parents hostage to its own destructive results. To see its severity and its destructiveness of human welfare, ask yourself this question: if you are today a poor parent with no financial capacity to choose a school for your child; and tomorrow, because of a beginning, even if not perfect school choice program, you have the capacity to choose among several or many school options; will you think tomorrow is better than today? Unless you believe half a loaf is no better than none, you will. And, without imagining that the perfect human condition has been achieved, you will see that a practical good now exists which, hitherto, was denied you. You will then be a hostage no longer. And, with the principle of parental freedom established, you can set to the task of perfecting policy.


The last illustration of the contemporary smoke screens which need to be dispelled and which would be ineffective without the a priori condition of social inertia is reflected in this oft-heard comment: “If we adopt true school choice without financial penalty, it will create a ‘windfall for the wealthy.'” The views of a prominent opponent of comprehensive school choice, as summarized in the press, are illustrative: “Most families who send their children to private schools have above average incomes.” What a shock!


This entire approach to school choice is a travesty and a tragedy as well. Educational finance monopoly, the status quo, automatically imposes a financial penalty on parents who choose an independent school. By definition, the “better off” are better able to pay EFM’s financial penalty – ever increasing taxes to support public schools and tuition for private schools if that is where they think their children should be going. So the better off are more apt to be in private schools. Elite public schools in wealthy suburbs, havens for those who have abandoned the cities and EFM’s worst schools, and flourishing private schools in such areas – both are direct off-shoots of educational finance monopoly itself. By making independent schools difficult or impossible for those who are not well off, EFM directly creates the “windfall for the wealthy” that universal and undifferentiated choice can bring, and then uses that windfall to block school choice and divide its constituents along class lines.


Indeed, using the so-called “windfall” to block parental freedom is just another class warfare effort. It is essentially irrelevant to the question of whether choice would improve education for all. It speaks as if the money were not the citizens’ to begin with, and once again makes educational policy carry the burden of wider social policies, which always damages it. It is hard enough to do education itself in the modern world, let alone make educational funding policy carry the burden of social redress of grievance, economic imbalance and the like. Just go to parental freedom via school choice. The poor, now without choices, will be the first and primary beneficiaries. Tax those able to carry the burden, as normally, but let parents and the virtues of love and justice work. That is what school choice is about. School choice without financial penalty done properly and appropriately is a general policy, and it will give the poor a measure of the educational freedom the “better off” already have. It is simply not accurate to describe the essential concept of school choice as an advantage to the wealthy.


Using relative wealth to help decide how to begin a school choice program is an altogether different question. If from a practical point of view it is impossible to start with a universal system because of up-front costs which the state budget cannot support at a given moment, then it is reasonable to look for ways to ease the start-up cost problem. There is absolutely no violation of principle, and it can be an entirely prudent calculation to say that we will phase in any particular choice program over a period of time so as to contain costs and give the choice system time to pay for itself, by encouraging parents to send children to less costly independent schools and to reduce tax burdens by not attending higher cost state schools. In such a case, the usual tests would apply. Is the new system really moving toward the North Star of parental freedom and empowerment? Is it beginning the dismantling of educational finance monopoly? If the answers to those questions are positive, then the only other question is whether it goes as far as practical at this particular historical moment. If the answer to that is “yes,” then a prudent calculation has been made. The class warfare trap has been avoided, and all school choice advocates should be able to work together – whether they are moved primarily by a general desire to see competition at work in education, or to see greater economic capacity for the poor.


We have examined here several contemporary illustrations of how EFM defenders are able to employ social inertia by working on the vulnerable with smoke screens, non-compelling arguments which are compelling only because of the social inertia which precedes and supports them. The way to avoid this and to begin to dismantle the effects of social inertia is to help people who are interested in the conditions of contemporary American education at last to get the argument right.


If I say to a debating opponent, “Let us agree that as we debate educational alternatives we will deal in ’empirical evidence,'” that may seem like a reasonable ground rule. Who can object to “empirical” evidence, after all? It is generally agreed to be the most useful kind of testimony: “intersubjectively transmissible,” as Arnold Brecht called it; mind-binding and conclusive, in other words. Good idea, and good ground rule! But what if, before advocating that rule, I have done two things: first, on those aspects of educational output which are measurable I have made it so no direct evidence can be had; second, I have obscured the fact that many of the most important dimensions of education do not yield to direct empirical tests? Seeing that, my opponent will realize that my “empirical evidence” opening gambit was nothing more than a trap. If he accepts that ground rule, he will be paralyzed, married forever to a malfunctioning status quo, unable even to ask for its basic reform because unable to provide agreed-upon “empirical evidence” to demonstrate freedom’s superiority over monopoly.


  1. Parental freedom to achieve the child’s welfare, including educational welfare, does not have to justify itself. We hold parents and guardians responsible for exercising that freedom. Thus, any move against and limitation on that freedom is what requires justification – never provided in the case of educational finance monopoly.


  1. Monopoly is extremely well known and is everywhere under a dark cloud of suspicion. That is not surprising, for what we know about it is that it tends to be destructive of human welfare. Since we know that to be generally true, this, then, is the fact: any monopolistic structure bears the burden of proof in defending itself. Seeing that is a key part of getting the argument right over educational funding.


  1. Hence the virtue of freedom via school choice does not require “demonstration.” Absent clear evidence that it is somehow educationally harmful (for which no evidence has ever been presented), it deserves to be treated as self-evidently appropriate – as democracies around the world know and provide for in parent-liberating school funding policies.


  1. The simple act of replacing monopoly finance with parental allocation of tax dollars dedicated to education would automatically break the monolithic, one-size-fits-all effort of contemporary public education, which so harshly deprives millions of parents, especially less-than-wealthy parents, of the right to select an educational and ethical environment most appropriate for their children. No “evidence” for this is required: it is inevitable and implicit in the ending of monopoly.


As these simple points show, we can know very much of what we need to know about school choice just by thinking anew about things known full well. If we “think anew” about the “natural moral contracts” which flow from free associations; about the weight of social inertia which makes defending the status quo easier than changing it; and about the natural inclination of those with material interests tied to the status quo to defend those interests; we will already know most of what we need to know about the struggle between parental freedom on the one hand, and educational finance monopoly, on the other. And we will know at that point to side step the false trap of “evidence” where it does not apply, and to reject a wrongly-placed burden of proof. We will insist that EFM must explain why we should not expect monopoly’s ruinous tendencies to apply in educational funding, and recognize that EFM must carry the whole burden of proof on its sloped and enfeebled shoulders.


Consciously or unconsciously, defenders of educational finance monopoly, the school funding status quo, regularly set such traps. Genuine school choice without financial penalty at the K-12 level, which is only a cumbersome name for parental freedom in education, has not “demonstrated” much in the United States. We have much entirely positive analogical evidence, of course – pre-school vouchers, university programs, private school choice programs, etc. But “evidence” of American K-12 choice success? Of course not. Every attempt has been killed. But let us reject the “false evidence” trap and insist on getting the argument right.


Get the argument right. Throw off the social inertia which makes too easy the defense of an indefensible status quo. Rise above the smoke screens which obstruct clear vision. At that point, America in its fifty jurisdictions will be able to develop rational, parent-based funding policies for K-12 education.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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