I’ve been having an interesting Twitter exchange with Jason P. Becker (who, it bears mentioning, appears to have been paid $163,276 by the Dept. of Education as a research specialist from 2011 to 2013) about my Providence Journal op-ed on school choice funding. The conversation took a fascinating, profound turn when we argued our way down to Becker’s core complaint:
Don’t wrap yourself the language of marginal shift when you really want a titanic change.
What’s fascinating is that, over the course of a century (or more, depending on definition), progressives have brought our country to its current position at the precipice of technocratic aristocracy by using any means necessary to take incremental steps, always dishonestly pretending they aren’t really changing anything. By “any means necessary,” I’m referring in part to pushing legislation (when progressives have advantage there), which can than be manipulated through executive action (when progressives have the advantage there) and solidified and pushed in radical directions through the judiciary (when progressives have the advantage there). I’m also referring, however, to the use of cultural institutions, from the media to the education system, often financed and empowered by the government, to cross all social and cultural lines for advocacy purposes.
Education is, itself, an excellent example. Even look at a legal precedent that Becker mentioned in passing. In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court created the “Lemon test” to determine whether religious interactions with the the government created an unconstitutional circumstance. Among the laws shot down was a Rhode Island statute directly paying a portion of private-school teachers’ salaries. Now, we’ve got the federal government implementing national standards, which will affect what is taught and how, and state government pushing government schools into full-day kindergarten and even preK. In another area (for example) we’ve got the government attempting to take over healthcare.
In all of these cases, the government extends its reach incrementally, and over time, it’s reducing the space for private interactions. Where people wish to bring their religious worldviews to those private interactions, the government is essentially strangling their ability to do so.
What’s profound is the difference that Becker’s objection draws between progressives and limited-government, free-market conservatives. As a simple point of fact, the education savings accounts currently proposed are nothing if not incremental. The money available for each student is limited. It requires the involvement of parents. Existing private schools can only accommodate so many students. And so on. The only “radical” idea that the legislation would advance is that the main rationale for public funding of education is to foster an educated population, not to support a government-school near monopoly.
If free-to-the-student government-run schools can’t improve enough to persuade the people who are paying for them through taxes to send their children to them, then the incremental step of the ESAs will rightly expand. But if government schools manage to stop the enrollment hemorrhage by actually providing what we justifiably expect them to provide, you won’t see conservatives looking for ways to force parents to send their children to private schools instead.