Twice in the last month, advocates of federal scholarship tax credits—credits on federal income taxes for people who donate to groups providing private school scholarships—have written pieces attacking choice supporters who oppose the idea. Both writers expressed incredulity that any choice advocate could stand athwart a federal credit, and essentially wrote "get on board."
My answer is "no" to the latter, and to the former, choice right now isn't all that matters.
Writing in The Hill, Peter Murphy of the Invest in Education Foundation accused folks at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute of "effectively aligning with the (teacher) unions" (those are fighting words!) in arguing against an expansive federal credit. He went on, "It's time for vocal Beltway conservatives to join common sense reformers and support a national scholarship tax credit."
Two days ago, John Schilling of the American Federation for Children wrote a blog post lumping "some choice advocates" in with the unions because they "are so committed to limiting the pathways for families and children to access better educational opportunities." Again, fighting words!
Throw-down words notwithstanding, I admire the American Federation for Children and Invest in Education Foundation for their zeal to expand school choice to as many students as possible. Indeed, we share the same goal, and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to do some reading.
But I also believe in federalism -- that the federal government is given only specific powers, and governing in education, even in ways I like, are not among them. That is ultimately for the protection of freedom, including freedom in school choice.
Prohibiting centralized national policy diffuses power and, at the very least, helps to insure that degrees of regulation are decided in 50 different places, allowing 50 different models to exist and compete with one another. It also prevents one-stop shopping by special interests, such as those D.C.-headquartered teachers' unions.
We have abandoned federalism to our detriment. It has given us No Child Left Behind (which, even if you like the standards-and-testing model, helped create a deep distaste for that approach in large part because NCLB was such a blunt, ham-fisted instrument). It has given us rule by "Dear Colleague" letters and regulatory waivers, and has us whipsawing back and forth on hot-button issues. And it has gotten us increasingly-regulated higher education, including through tax credits that can only be claimed for expenses at accredited schools. Washington, of course, regulates the accreditors.
Murphy denied the danger of federal regulation at first, dismissing concerns that a credit "would lead to overreaching regulation of private schools." But he went on to write that "there are some legitimate issues that need to be recognized and not sacrificed as legislation is developed. This includes protecting the autonomy of private schools, and ensuring the freedom of religion in faith-based schools." And how would he do that? "We just need to make sure we do school choice right."
Who knew it was so simple?!
Interestingly, while they found common ground criticizing choice federalists, Schilling and Murphy did not agree on what the tax credit program should look like. Schilling wants one in which "only states that opt-in and approve the non-profits to provide scholarships would participate." Murphy, in contrast, wants to bypass state governments controlled by "the raw special-interest power of teacher unions." But both would be prime targets for regulating private schools, either by stating what criteria states that opt-in would have to use to identify eligible nonprofits, or by directly dictating what makes an organization eligible.
Recently, the American Enterprise Institute's Andy Smarick pondered how competing conservative sides of education reform—the "bold reform" group that thinks the system is inherently broken, and the "conserve" group that believes we should act cautiously with time-honored institutions—could get along. I am libertarian, but I might have part of the answer: federalism.
I believe that public schooling is an inherently bad system—even local control breeds tyranny of the majority and special-interest capture—but I have also been accused of local control fetishism. I have opposed Common Core, not because the standards are educationally suspect, but because centralized dictates are dangerous.
I believe that local control of public schools can work better than state or federal. And I recognize that my knowledge and reasoning are limited by my finite human capacities—that I might not have the perfect answers. Especially given this last, humbling human reality, our default should be to a system in which power is diffuse, allowing new things to be tried without imposing them on everyone, and learning from what does and does not work.
I don't stand against the tax credit proposal because I am unsympathetic to the desire for maximum choice. I suspect few people want universal choice more than I. But how we get there is crucial both to protect freedom broadly, and to promulgate choice that maximizes not just the ability to pick a school, but schools' ability to choose how they will educate.
Neal McCluskey (@NealMcCluskey) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom and maintains Cato's Public Schooling Battle Map.
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