Educational “Entitlement” Accounts

With the nomination of Bet$y DeVo$ to be our next US Secretary of Education, there is little doubt we will be spending much of the next few years talking a lot about school choice, charter schools, and vouchers.

If Donald Trump’s ultimate goal is to steer public dollars away from traditional public schools and into the pockets of charter operators and private schools, it would have been hard for him to find anyone more passionate about this mission than Ms. DeVos.

She was so excited about the invitation to join the Trump cabinet that she quickly penned her third tweet, ever.

Betsy’s been tweeting up a storm since then as her tweet total has skyrocketed to 12 in just a week.

I also find it interesting that DeVos has over 30,000 Twitter followers, yet follows only 44 accounts herself. Her list includes her husband, Dick DeVos, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and a few venture interests.

Who’s not currently on her Twitter list? Her future boss, Donald J Trump.

Anyhow, conservative support for vouchers seems a contradiction to me. Why? Because it is nothing more than another government entitlement.

For years, those on the far right have done everything they can to decry the entitlement culture in America.

In fact, most of the time, they use the “e-word” in a pejorative sense. The term has become synonymous with words and phrases like welfare, freebies, and government handouts.

Remember this 2012 quote from Mitt Romney about Americans who comprise the so-called 47% of moochers essentially living off the government teat.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”

This mindset leads to graphics like this one, which send the message that receiving money from other American taxpayers is akin to being a common thief.

Now is a good time for us to review the formal definition of the word, “entitlement”, as provided by Merriam-Webster:

A government program that provides benefits to members of a group that has a statutory entitlement; also the benefits distributed by such a program. 

Vouchers in the form of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) seem to fit this definition well. They would represent a new statutory entitlement, one which would allow certain members of our society to benefit while others do not.

The rhetoric of pro-voucher folks is to frame the decision about public support of education in a very specific way. “These tax dollars belong to the students and their families, not the bureaucracy of government schools” or some equivalent. “This money belongs to the deserving child, not the money-grubbing public school system.”

It’s a clear choice. And it’s an invalid choice.

The tax dollars associated with public schools belong to neither the parent, the child, nor the school system.

Those tax dollars belong to the taxpayers.

The basic foundation of public education is pretty simple. Over 150 years ago, members of various communities across America got together and said, “Let’s put some money together and get the kids an education, because if they grow up stupid, we’ll have to live with and depend on a bunch of dumb adults, and that seems like a bad idea.”

They also agreed it would be a prudent idea to elect some of them to act as overseers to keep an eye on the operation of this local school and protect the money they pooled together to run it.

Those communities did not say, “Let’s collect a bunch of our money, give it back to the parents of school-age children, and they can spend it on their kids however they like.”

The reality is the vast majority of citizens with children pay FAR less in state taxes than it actually costs to educate the children in any given year. Therefore, an ESA represents an additional subsidy above the amount they contributed themselves.

For that reason, a more accurate name for these vouchers would be Education Entitlement Accounts (EEAs).

In you recall, most conservatives laughed off the idea of free college tuition as proposed by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. In addition to legitimate concerns over how this program would be paid for, many argued it would just be another government entitlement paid for by dollars ripped from the tax-payer’s wallets.

I understand the distinctions between voucher programs for common education and public support for college education. But, how is a voucher-choice system anything other than an entitlement for children to attend private school with money taken directly from the public coffers?

What’s weird is how very un-conservative these voucher-choice concepts really are.

Conservatives also hate when publicly funded universities use public tax dollars to pay professors who teach things with which some conservative taxpayers deeply disagree. How is a voucher-choice system any different if vouchers could be used to send children to a charter or private school based on Sharia Law or Satanism or any other potentially controversial foundation?

One thing is certain under a voucher-choice system– taxpayers without school age children have no voice in how education is managed in their community. It represents taxation without representation.

Nearly 35% of households in America don’t have children living at home. As with the early communities I discussed earlier, should those community taxpayers also get to choose where their school tax dollars go, since children grow up to become members of society and the economy?

I agree that public schools can also make decisions that their local taxpayers hate– and then the taxpayers can come tell the elected school board how much they hate those choices, and the taxpayers can replace the board members with more amenable ones.

Yet, in a voucher-choice system, if you have no child, you have no voice.

Imagine if we distributed back to households other tax dollars ostensibly raised to support a common good. For instance, Oklahoma levies gasoline taxes to pay for general road maintenance across our state. What if the state gave drivers a share of those tax dollars to repair only the roads on which they live? The drive on the remaining public roads might be even more bumpy than it is now. (I know, hard to believe!)

General taxes that support our neighborhood public school are a good deal for our kids. For us, at least, it is a price worth paying. The public schools connect us to each other – just like a smooth, shared, well-maintained road.

The bottom line is if we are going to have a genuine conversation about vouchers or Education Savings Accounts in our state, it’s important to recognize them for what they really are.

It is one group of people saying they are entitled to income earned by others to make a choice for which the others have no control or voice in how the money is used.

They are educational entitlements, simple as that.

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