May 18, 2011

A polite response to Andrew Coulson

By A polite response to Andrew Coulson

Author: Joshua Thompson

Yesterday, after I posted a slight critique of an opinion piece by Andrew Coulson in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he responded to my critique. His response raises some fair points.  Unfortunately, a lot of his response falls into the policy realm: are tax credits empirically better at encouraging competition and eliminating overregulation than vouchers?  As I noted in my original post, I think the argument "makes intuitive sense."  Indeed, I authored an amicus brief advocating for upholding Arizona's tax credit system.  So, where do we differ?

I argued that his use of the word "tyrannical' to describe vouchers was unfair.  While he now softens his use of the term, he nevertheless argues that his use of the term is directly in step with Thomas Jefferson's use of "tyrannical" in the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.  I remain unconvinced that vouchers can be equated with "compel[ling]a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves," and I think I have the Supreme Court on my side.  But it is undoubtedly true that in a voucher system some taxpayer monies (including the money of non-believers) will go towards sectarian schools.  Is that "tyrannical?"

Under a broad reading of Jefferson's words, yes it is.  But so is publicly funded education generally – monies are undoubtedly going towards proagation of opinions that many taxpayers disbelieve.  Granted, those ideas may not have a religious angle, but are the two so diametrically different that one can be described as tyrannical but the other cannot?

I also don't think this is merely semantics. Describing vouchers as "tyranny" devalues the word, so that when "tyranny" is used to describe the policies of true tyrants like Kim Jong-Il or Robert Mugabe, the force of that word is lessened.  Accordingly, use of "tyranny" should be saved for when it is appropriate.

Mr. Coulson also took exception to my description of his article as "bashing" vouchers.  But if, as Mr. Coulson contends, vouchers may not be good at all, I don't understand the objection.  Clearly, his piece, as well as his research, can also be described as informative, and I don't mean to discount its value to the debate on education reform.  To the contrary, I look forward to reading Mr. Coulson's research, and I find his thesis — that vouchers can lead to overregulation of private schools — intuitively compelling.

Yet, I am not ready to abandon vouchers.  Having read much research on the subject (some still championed by the Cato Institute), I think vouchers are still a clear improvement over government-only options.  Perhaps, Mr. Coulson's research will sway me the other way, but until that day, I remain unconvinced that critiquing vouchers is the best way to achieve a system of free-market education policy.

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