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Monday, June 21, 2004

Battle School Vouchers - Challenger - Opening Statement

As the esteemed Chairman and the innumerable and illustrious contributors of this blog have pointed out, the issue of School Vouchers is a topic rife with complexity and competing interests.

Or is it?

Although School Vouchers raise a number of subordinate and subsidiary issues, the actual issue of School Vouchers is relatively straight forward. Let’s back up a little and lay some groundwork, shall we?

There is a great deal of confusion in the public sphere regarding exactly what School Vouchers are. This is largely because the voucher programs that have already been implemented come in a variety of flavors. Some voucher programs are only available for people who fall below a certain income level. Some voucher programs are capped so that only a certain percentage of the population may participate. Some voucher programs put requirements on the private schools that participate. Considering that voucher programs come in 57 tasty varieties and it would be oppressively boring to prattle on about the mundane details of each, I’m going to define School Vouchers in their broadest sense.

School Vouchers are any program whereby the government gives some tax dollars to families who opt to send their children to a private school rather than a government one.

I suppose that I should pause for a moment and disclose my underlying biases. I am a father of 4 children, 3 of whom are in school. They attend a parochial school for which we pay the full tuition. I grew up attending both private and public schools. My mother was a public school teacher with a Masters in Education who taught primarily the mentally handicapped (which explains her success with me). I support School Vouchers, but my equally conservative and far more intelligent wife does not. And now, I return you to your regularly scheduled debate.

Before we examine the merits of School Vouchers, we must first study the history and purpose of public education. The genesis of public education in America came with the genesis of the nation itself. Many of the Founding Fathers supported public education. As usual, the most articulate advocate for public education was Thomas Jefferson, who said, "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness... The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." (Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786).

In a Republic, where the general public is responsible for the direction of the nation on a great number of issues, it is vital that every citizen have an education that prepares them to make wise decisions. It is also necessary that every citizen understand their liberty and the underpinnings of the Republic so that they may maintain a vigorous defense of their rights and freedoms. In order for the citizenry to properly manage their Republic while protecting their inalienable rights, they must be well versed in economics, philosophy, math, reading, writing, oratory, and history. In order to ensure that the citizens were capable of warding off the fate of past Republics, men like Jefferson advocated for the dissemination of knowledge from the very birth of our magnificent nation.

One must understand the enormous undertaking that men like Jefferson were proposing. They were talking about taking farmers, blacksmiths, butchers, etc. and all manner of people from all manner of society and educating them in things that they had not known existed. If you think that explaining the importance geometry to an inner-city kid is important, try explaining the importance of Greek literature to an 18th century farm-boy. Furthermore, men like Jefferson were proposing that the public should provide for the education of every citizen, so that the blessings of education should not be the sole privilege of the wealthy.

I support public education. An educated populace will always have the intellectual tools at their disposal to be capable stewards of our Republic so that their children may inherit the blessings of liberty and not the manacles of tyranny.

Over the years, educational priorities have shifted with the times. We no longer teach Greek literature, but we teach Computer Science. Given the breadth of human knowledge on a near infinite number of topics, the debate about which subjects should be taught and which subjects should be ignored has raged for centuries.

One thing that has remained constant throughout the existence of our nation is a parent’s right to guide the education of their own child. Parents are responsible for every aspect of a child’s upbringing and education is in the forefront of those responsibilities. Parents have always been able to withdraw their children from the government’s schools and enroll them in private institutions or even take on the education of their children by themselves. To my knowledge, this right of the parents has never been successfully challenged.

Given that education is a vital State interest, yet parents retain the right to select the form of that education, the question is whether or not the State should pay for the education of a child if that child is not enrolled in a State institution. Yes, it should.

When The People decide that something is in their best interest, and decide to use the State’s coercive powers in order to support it, then the State assumes the duty and responsibility of providing for that something. In the case of education, The People have decided that education is necessary for the existence and continuation of their Republic. As such, The People have decided to use their State to provide education for every person. The People have also decided that they will use the power of their State to compel every person to acquire a proper education.

Ahhhh…. but there’s the rub. In our liberal tradition of individual rights, the State may not compel a citizen to do something if it is a violation of their rights. For instance, it is in the State’s best interest to remove criminals from the street, but the State may not compel a citizen to testify against himself. Individual rights are the boundaries within which the State must act. In view of the fact that parents retain the unchallenged right to raise their children within their own social and philosophical norms, the State may not compel them to enroll their children into a government school. The State may compel the parents to educate their children, but not prescribe the parameters of that education except in the broadest terms.

The State does, however, still bear the responsibility of providing that education. The State must at all times execute its responsibilities in a way that is equal to all citizens. When a road is built, all citizens, regardless of race, religion, creed, or wealth may use that road equally. When a courtroom is run, all citizens must be treated uniformly under the law. All citizens lie equally protected at night under the blanket of freedom provided by the military.

The responsibility of providing an education must be provided equally to all citizens. If the State has decided that $10,000 per year is adequate to provide an education to a child, then that amount should be spent on every child. In practice, of course, some children are more expensive to educate, but I think that the State can break down the expense into fairly broad categories. For instance, a child with a learning disability may require $15,000 per year to provide the same level of education. In any case, the money that the State must spend in order to provide what it has deemed to be a suitable education must follow the child. If a private institution can provide an equal or better education for less money, then I think it is acceptable for the State only to dispense that amount of money. In short, the State should dispense enough money for the purpose of education up to the amount it would have spent if the child had attended a government school and the government school should forgo that amount.

In summary, the State, as properly directed by The People, must provide the suitable means to each child for the purpose of education. That education may come in any appropriate form, whether private or public, as prescribed by the child’s parents, which they are within their rights to prescribe.

I know that talk of rights and duty aren’t nearly as much fun as bickering over voucher policies and statistics, but it is upon this foundation of State interests, tempered by individual rights, that I build my schoolhouse.

Mr. Chairman, I yield the floor to my distinguished colleague on the Left.

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