Budget & Tax , Education

Greg Forster, Ph.D. | June 1, 2017

Does school choice expand the welfare state?

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

By Greg Forster

Congratulations, Oklahoma! By pursuing school choice, you did the impossible—you turned some big-government progressives into radical libertarians. Unable to persuade Oklahomans to solve their problems by further expanding the omnipotent and omnibenevolent state, opponents of school choice in Oklahoma have resorted to denouncing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in anti-government rhetoric that would make any gold-hoarding survivalist proud. The truth, of course, is that school choice represents one of the few really viable solutions to the problem of the ever-expanding technocratic state.

ESAs are a relatively new form of school choice that empowers parents more than any other kind of choice program does. Like vouchers, ESAs give parents rather than government (or, as with some forms of choice, a scholarship organization) control over what school to use their child’s portion of education spending at—whether a public or private school. Unlike vouchers, though, they let parents shop for other education services as well, not just tuition. And parents get more freedom to use their money wisely, with the option to save over time instead of being required to “use it or lose it” each year.

Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, noting the state’s budget shortfall last year, attacked the proposal to create ESAs as an expansion of big government: “Is this the right year, is this the right time to start a new government program?”

Is Hofmeister sincere in her concern about expanding government? That’s hard to believe in light of her exchange with her consultant Fount Holland. Advising Hofmeister on how to avoid being publicly endorsed by Oklahoma’s teacher union, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), when in fact she really favored OEA’s policies and wanted their covert support in the election, Holland wrote: “We will lose if they endorse us. I can give them some ideas about how to be savvy and truly helpful. A little savvy would make OEA unstoppable. The question is are they for us, and can they be quiet and stomach our right wing rhetoric long enough to get what they really want; a pro-education environment for our state.”

The email exchange was later made public by subpoena, to Hofmeister’s embarrassment. (Why anyone involved in government uses email or texting is beyond me.)

But let’s set aside Hofmeister’s shenanigans and look at the question on the merits. Does school choice expand government at a time when it’s already so bloated it can’t pay its bills?

In fact, a well-designed school choice program won’t cost money, but merely redirect existing levels of spending. Most choice programs actually save money for state budgets, even as they improve educational outcomes. Parents making choices for their own children are more efficient and more effective than the bloated bureaucracy that controls spending decisions under the government school monopoly. A state in fiscal trouble has more reason, not less, to enact universal school choice pronto.

At this late date, it’s not remarkable that school choice opponents have a weak grasp of the facts. What’s remarkable is the use of anti-government rhetoric by opponents of choice.

It’s always been a theoretical possibility. In my years in the school choice movement, I’ve had hallway conversations on “why don’t the school unions do more to try to split libertarians off from the choice coalition?” (The favorite answer is usually “because they’re as bureaucratically bloated, lethargic, and incompetent when it comes to political maneuvering as they are at running schools.”) But I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen this animal in the wild before.

You don’t have to be libertarian—I’m not—to favor school choice. But one important argument for choice is that it breaks down a corrupt alliance between government power and special-interest groups. Politicians deliver money (in the form of school spending) to the teacher and staff unions and other special interests that profit from the existence of a large, inefficient government school monopoly. In return, the special interests deliver votes to the politicians who support the monopoly.

This is a critical reason why choice delivers better educational results for less money. It pulls off the leeches who suck money out of the school bureaucracy without contributing to education.

However, costs and budgets are ultimately secondary concerns. The more important question is philosophical. Does school choice expand government into a new area of activity where it has no legitimate function?

That’s the argument, at least hypothetically, of Oklahoma edu-blogger Rob Miller. I say “hypothetically” because, unlike some school superintendents, Miller doesn’t pretend that he’s concerned about the size of government. But he attacks those of us who are simultaneously concerned about the size of government and supportive of ESAs.

He argues that ESAs expand government. If he were us, he says, he’d be against ESAs because they create “another government entitlement.” They therefore expand the “entitlement culture” people like us are supposed to be so worried about.

Now, it is true that ESAs are an “entitlement” in the way that term is normally used in the context of public policy. Like Social Security and food stamps, they create a benefit to which all people in the relevant class (retirees for Social Security, the poor for food stamps, parents for school choice) are entitled under the law.

The key difference is that Social Security, food stamps, and other typical entitlement programs represent the expansion of government into a leading role in areas previously dominated by private savings, employer-paid pensions, church and community organizations, and other non-governmental solutions. This is how entitlements got their bad name in conservative circles. They used the power of government to crowd out individual initiative, economic interdependence, and spiritual communities.

It is not true that there were no programs for the poor before the modern welfare state. The programs used to be mostly church-run. Abraham Kuyper, who lived through the transition from church-led to government-led charity, denounced it as the work of greedy and slothful churchgoers who couldn’t be bothered to do the Christian thing and care for the poor themselves, and wanted government to do it for them instead. In his memorable words: “Never forget that every penny of state aid for the poor is a blot upon the honor of your savior.”

He was right. And if you’re not religious, you can make an analogous argument in favor of organizing voluntary charity rather than sloughing off the problem on a leech-heavy government bureaucracy. Our own greed and sloth—our desire to have someone else bear our moral burden—was then, and is now, the primary cause of the welfare state’s destructive and seemingly unlimited expansion.

That’s not to say there’s no role for government. As I said, I’m not libertarian. It’s only to say that government shouldn’t be taking the lead. We have allowed it to bully its way to the front of the parade because we found it too much trouble to lead ourselves.

School choice, by contrast, reverses the endless expansion of government by moving us away from a government monopoly. An entitlement to education funding involves less, not more, government control than a government-owned, government-run school system. Obviously the typical conservative critique of “entitlement programs” and “entitlement culture” doesn’t apply to programs moving us in exactly the direction conservatives are trying to move us!

Compared to the government school monopoly, school choice liberates individual initiative, economic interdependence, and spiritual community. It allows parents to take control of their children’s education, becoming stewards over their own lives, instead of treating them like perpetual wards of government—as if they were cattle in the government’s pen. It supports educational entrepreneurs who create new school systems designed to serve the customer base created by school choice. And it allows schools to have a holistic vision of what it means to be an educated person—one that doesn’t yank the leash and stick a gag in teachers’ mouths when students ask big spiritual questions about the meaning and purpose of human life.

School choice moves us away from dependence on government and toward individual initiative, economic interdependence, and spiritual community. So Miller would have a really good point if he were only saying that some of our conservative friends, if they’re not actually libertarians, ought to tone down their ham-handed rhetoric about the evils of “entitlement” programs. But if he thinks this is an argument against school choice, I think we’re entitled to disagree.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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