Vouchers instead of taxes

By Mathias Maurer, March 2015

Our school and education system is state controlled as if we were still living in pre-First World War Wilhelmine Germany and not in a European civil society. Time to change that and move from state direction of education to a system which places responsibility into the hands of the people concerned, the parents and children. The means of choice to achieve this goal is the education voucher.

Photo: © quiloo photocase

From the king’s grace to the paternal state

A look into history shows that education has not always been a publicly financed service. The first “education sponsors” were individual personalities, patrons who financed education and research. It was in the houses of the kings and rulers that education was given to the nobility. The churches followed and, out of the wealth of their members, financed treasures of education. In the scriptoria of the abbeys monks illustrated and studied thick volumes in honour of God. Education was an exclusive property.

The victory of the Enlightenment cannot be thought without the technical revolution: not until book printing was invented was it possible for broader sections of society to enjoy instructional and uplifting literature. As citizens and, ultimately, the civic polity grew stronger, the “nationalisation” of education and the introduction of the right to education followed. Education became a public, secular matter with a sweeping, nationwide effect – the printing presses did more than just call on citizens to maintain public order.

Education only unfolds its full emancipatory potential in democratic societies. Here the trend is for education processes to separate themselves from the prevalent or institutional controlling intent of those in power. Yet today we are nowhere near where we could be in a free polity: the education sector, particularly in Germany, continues to be organised and financed like in an out-of-date planned economy. The state keeps hold of the central control of education and through finance controls what it thinks education should be. In addition, it acts as a producer itself. The view that education has to be organised through a state education monopoly is a firm part of a German sense of justice and subordinate mentality. This is obsolete and we are facing a crucial turning point today. The responsible citizen wants to take their own decisions – what is best for themselves and their children, and not at the cost of the public good.

Education is no market place

It would be easy to think that the funding of education through vouchers promotes neoliberal ideas of commercialising education – see the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). But market mechanisms must not take hold of a public property. If the basic idea of the “inventor” of the education voucher, Milton Friedman, were followed in its purest form, the “sale of education” would be pre-programmed: everything must go. Pupils would be selected, equality of opportunity would be a thing of the past, elite schools on the one hand, falling education quality through competing schools on the other, and the decimation of the school profile in rural areas, to name but a few things.

But if the idea of freedom were applied to competition between educations themselves and educational content were separated from its funding, the desired effect would be achieved: the best education would prevail and it would happen through parents “voting with their feet”. Here the state would have a purely supervisory function (compliance with basic and human rights) and not distribute the resources – that would be done by the parents and their children who would “demand” education – let alone the content. That would bring movement into the educational landscape, the financing of provision would be replaced by the financing of demand and a thousand flowers would bloom.

How incapable does one have to think that parents are when they are told that the education of their children is important and what is good for them? That belongs to the age of Bismarck when there was a justified effort to socially compensate for the inhumanity of unbridled capitalism, albeit with a scattergun approach and the general right to education; or to the political field of development assistance in countries in which the right of education is still an alien concept. In western societies we have today reached the point in regulatory policy where the people affected should themselves decide what kind of education they want. People live in Europe who are on the way to a civil society, who take responsibility for the common good, grasp the initiative in terms of subsidiarity and want to take over tasks which previously belonged to the state and which can in any case no longer be satisfactorily fulfilled due to lack of money (see pensions). And the education voucher could realise this force of initiative – for social benefit and the relief of the state.

Education as a gift

Financing education is an investment in the future – that applies to everyone who is educating themselves. Investment in education is an open investment. The state and parents do not know how in future the children, pupils or students will use the fruits of this financial commitment, which cannot be calculated in terms of human capital. They have faith and give their gift.

It may be that the fruits are never enjoyed, that they go rotten or remain unused, or that they bear more fruit. Who can know that in advance? That has been a risk ever since people have had children. Education vouchers strengthen the right of parents individually to decide the educational path of their children. Unlike the Model T Ford, which was famously available in any colour so long as it was black, they can influence the available provision through their financial power. “Production” is focused on those things for which there is a real demand, not what the planners determine there should be in a planned economy. New things arise, proven things are assured and out-of-date things disappear from the shelves.

Parents in Germany have the right of a free choice of schools – but not always the necessary means to make use of it. That would change if all parents were given a voucher for the education of their children from public funds which they could redeem at the school of their choice. The result would be that parents, as “demanders” would determine what schools there are. Schools would have to provide evidence of their educational qualities and manage the money they received through the vouchers. Waldorf schools show with their unprecedented consolidated yearly budget that despite only partial state funding of between 60 and 90 percent they work economically and in addition invest in their own school buildings and teacher training. That is only possible through the school fees which have to be raised from parents because the free schools in Germany are not fully funded by the state although they perform the same educational task and finish with recognised school leaving qualifications. Here parents who want “free” education face a double burden: through taxes and school fees.

The education voucher would ensure equal rights and equal treatment in exercising the right to free choice of school, irrespective of whether the establishment is in state or free sponsorship.

Alongside the basic endowment of school vouchers which is independent of school type, they could easily be the vehicle for additional compensatory payments: for schools in social flashpoints, for schools with an inclusive profile, for rural schools with a large catchment area and poor infrastructure, for schools for highly gifted pupils, for vocational schools or progressive schools in equal measure.

In a civil society, the new sovereign in the field of education can only be the people affected themselves. They have the right to realise their free choice of school through an appropriate, demand-oriented funding process. They take the money where they want it to go. The power of financial control and disposal in matters of education no longer lies with the church or state but with the individual citizen.

That would be appropriate for a polity organised along civil society lines. In this context the educational pluralism wanted by everyone should not be confused in our education system with an unbridled education market which steamrollers a person’s right to education without protection.

Democracies live by their peaceful pluralism of values. Parents have a variety of educational preferences and values. These should be allowed to find their expression without discrimination. Let a thousand flowers bloom; that is to say, make schools as diverse and colourful as society. The education voucher would put an end to the monoculture.

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