Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Golden rule should guide voucher debate

I don’t write much about politics anymore, not because I don’t have opinions — as my friends and co-workers know — but because it’s become such a bloodsport. To choose a party means embracing the idea that you are choosing a noble fight for the right against an unspeakable wrong, i.e., the other party. How absurd. They’re both wrong, of course.

The late, great one-term Wisconsin governor and part-time Egg Harbor resident Lee Dreyfus summarized my own view of politics best: “Government should defend our shores and deliver the mail and otherwise stay the hell out of my life.” He would not fit in very well among the social engineers and budget busters of either today’s Republican or Democratic parties.

Dreyfus also joked about what he called the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules,” meaning if you accept money from the government, expect it to come with strings attached. That’s the rule that informs my view of the so-called private school choice or school voucher system.

Make no mistake about it: I believe private schools are a good idea. As state Sen. Frank Lasee likes to say, “the education of our children is too important to leave in the hands of a government monopoly.” Much good is accomplished in public schools, especially local public schools, but politicians and the bureaucracy seem hell-bent on draining what’s left of local life and local wisdom out of schools and leaving the most important decision-making in a central authority’s hands. Competition makes the competitors better; the more schools to choose from, the better the schools.

I also believe low-income families should have access to private schools. It’s hard to afford tuition for your kids when every December you must also pay a hefty tuition for the “free” education the government funds. Somehow, those families need some relief if they feel a private school is a better choice for their kids.

However, remember Dreyfus’ Golden Rule. The more state dollars are used to fund private schools, the greater will be the call to make those schools more accountable for how they spend the dollars they receive. Accountable to whom? Why, to the state Department of Public Instruction, of course. Before long a private education and a public education will be indistinguishable.

On the issue of whether the government needs to raise taxes on the rich, I have a little philosophy I like to call the Buffett Rule: If Warren Buffett thinks his taxes are too low, he should consider making a volunteer donation above and beyond what his accountants think is his fair share of taxes, rather than beat the drum for raising his fellow billionaires’ confiscatory taxes even higher.

I have a similar opinion on the issue of how to help low-income families afford private schools. If you think low-income families ought to receive a $7,000 annual voucher for their kids to go to the school of their choice, create a fund and solicit donations, rather than having the government create that fund. For the sake of the schools’ independence, don’t ask taxpayers to pony up.

I agree with the people who believe low-income families deserve the same chances for their children’s success that the middle and upper classes have. On the issue of inviting government gold and government rules into the equation, I simply caution to be careful what you wish for.

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