- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court favorably decided a case so fundamentally about freedom that its very adjudication was hard to believe.
It involved an experimental Cleveland program offering low-income children scholarships to attend either public or private schools. Your education, your choice what could be more straightforward? Yet it was not just opposed, but vehemently so, by the public education industry. This opposition raises two questions: Why is the public education industry so opposed to this particular experiment and why are they so generally liberal?
The answer to both questions has more to do with economics than education.
Begun in 1996 because of unrelenting mismanagement in Cleveland's public schools, the Ohio Pilot Scholarship Program offers low-income children up to $2,500 annually through eighth grade to pay either a private or on an out-of-district public school's tuition. No out-of-district public schools chose to participate, so in the 1999-2000 school year all 3,761 students participated attended private schools. Because 96 percent of program students chose to attend church-affiliated schools, it was hauled before the courts on the grounds of violating the Constitution's establishment of religion clause under the First Amendment.
The federal government's unqualified extension of higher education assistance regardless if a student attends a religious school easily refutes the ostensible objection on religious grounds that caused the suit.
More troubling is the public education industry's persistent opposition to a full range of choice in K-12 that is equal to the range of choice already available for college students.
The public education industry levels three serious charges against giving a full range of choice for students: tuition support is too low, money will be taken from public schools, and the best, easier to educate, students will leave the public school system. However, if you examine all three together the argument falls apart.
First however you must ignore the basic unfairness of a willingness to sacrifice an individual's future to the assertion that they need to be present to help others learn. Ask yourself two questions: Do people pick colleges for themselves on that basis and would you be willing to limit your child's opportunity on it? The answer is a resounding "no" to both.
Nor do the critics' charges agree with the facts. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Ohio spent $6,808 per pupil on average in 1997-98 (the national average was $6,662). Far from being a drain on the school system's budget, the $2,500 annual amount is a bargain. While evidently already a good deal to the families of 3,761 low-income Cleveland students (or else why did they choose it?), the amount could be increased and still be a good deal for the public school system. Consider: If better students are more likely to participate in the program and they are easier and less costly to educate, then giving them tuition support equal to the full cost of their education would mean that the average cost per pupil remaining in public schools would actually increase.
No, the arguments over real school choice go to the macro-, not the microeconomic level. It is about monopoly. The public education industry doesn't reflexively oppose choice when it is only within the public education industry itself. It opposes choice when its monopoly position is threatened.
That the public education industry is a monopoly is beyond dispute.
The failure of monopolies, wherever they exist, can be summed up as economic distortion high price, poor service, lack of choice, etc. So great is the level of economic distortion in public education that it is difficult to even discern what the participants' roles should be. Students and parents are divorced from their payment (taxes), so they are not free consumers.
Teachers are divorced from their labor by rigid rules and pay scales, so they are not free producers.
The result is that public education is probably the most economically insulated industry in the nation. What exists is a "nonmarket" in which the normal roles are unfilled and from which only the unions benefit from competition's exclusion.
It is not surprising then that the union-dominated public education industry is so opposed to real school choice and so liberal in general.
Liberals favor policies that distort the economy subsidizing with private sector resources public sector programs. The more liberal, the greater the subsidization. Since public education unions are wholly subsidized by the public education industry, they are its most liberal participant and the most vocal supporter of its status quo.
In public education's "nonmarket" of economic insulation, it is students, parents and teachers who are the losers and only unions that are the winners. The liberal opposition to real school choice is not hard to understand. What is hard to understand is America's continued toleration of it. Perhaps the Supreme Court's decision is an indication that finally the nation has learned its lesson.

J.T. Young is a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury Department.


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