Education Vouchers…Hither and Thither?


The decision by a Colorado District court which recently blocked the voucher program in the district is one example of public domain in action. It needs a strong sense of public interest grounded in the constitution and a general consensus on what constitutes public good to provide a constructive check on the encroachment of public interest by ‘other’ interests. Colorado’s court decision is an exemplar of such action. Check out the full court order here. I wish to draw on this example to speak to the arguments about vouchers–and they are gaining currency–in the developing contexts.

Some people may not like the idea of my references to examples from the United States, when the issue at hand is mass education in developing countries such as Pakistan. To those well meaning friends I say, “look you are not against the whole idea of public interest, or are you? If not, then pick the examples from where you can to show how the public domain operates.” What is at stake in debates about privatisation of education in Pakistan is this very idea of public interest and a domain to protect it. The latter is too weak or altogether absent!

In developing countries, the argument that it is alright to hand over public monies to private schools is gaining currency. This needs to happen because, we are told, that private schools are more efficient and public schools are doing so badly. Furthermore, the parents don’t articulate their demand for good education and the political elites do not respond adequately because no body is knocking on their doors. So the public schools, which had always failed, are likely to fail even more in future.  The vouchers presumably become more relevant because the state is already promising free and compulsory education to all children but is unable to deliver it to a great majority.  So why not just take the money from it and give to those who can actually provide schooling efficiently. If it is to be free than why can’t it be delivered through vouchers to children, who can choose to go to whichever school they wish to go in their neighbourhoods. Vouchers, it is also argued, can help create a public private balance, a half n half situation in which half the kids go to private schools and the state pays for their fees and the rest go to public schools. This argument seems credible given that nearly 33 % are already going to the private schools.

The economist Milton Friedman had coined the idea of education vouchers for the first time in United States.  But it never got a clean run in the place of its origin due to a robust public domain and vouchers readily became controversial and remain so to this day. Friedman was nobel laureate enough to recognise that it would be politically impossible to roll up the public education system in the United States, so he offered vouchers as a mid-way compromise to make schools more market-driven. Making his case for vouchers in The New York Times, Milton Friedman spoke of them as a political compromise. While a fully privatized school system was ideal, it was “outside the range of political feasibility…” He spoke of the vouchers as “a more modest reform—one that would retain compulsory schooling, government financing and government operation, while preparing the way for the gradual replacement of public schools by private schools.” (Friedman, M. (1973, 09/23). Selling Schooling Like Groceries: The Voucher Idea., The New York Times. )

But like all ‘travelling ideas,’ the vouchers appear as policy solutions in the developing countries a bit differently, leaving behind the controversy that surrounds them in the land of their origin. I personally think that a public private balance predicated on the idea of vouchers is very unlikely. When the state starts paying for the private schools for some children then why deprive any from going to such schools. Let us ask the state to wind down and close shop. No public schools needed. They are already rotting and will be wiped off anyway when the money will change hands. Private entrepreneurs can, and will, go wherever money goes, and if the money is made available through vouchers to all children, then they would go all over. But what is wrong with this? Apparently, nothing. Why should any sane person have any problem with the idea if, at the point of service, a child is getting free education. And apparently that ‘free’ education is provided by a market-based [even if not-for-profit] entrepreneur, who is presumably infinitely more efficient than the rotting public education bureaucracy. What’s wrong with handing everything over to the private sector and cleaning the dust off our hands?

The only problem is that in countries like Pakistan this will happen in the absence of a strong ‘public domain.’ There is no evidence of robust public domain to protect the public interest here. And we should not be prepared to accept the ‘civil society’ domain as ‘the public domain.’ It partly intersects with it, but have no political wherewithal to robustly protect the public interest. We do not even have agreed upon definitions of what constitutes public interest in the case of education. The public interest is not served when education works to create multiple communities/societies in Pakistan. Public school going children or Low Fees Private Schools going children live in a different world and only communicate as ‘Riayaya,’ with the products of elite public or private schools.

There is no robust notion of what constitutes public interest. Haven’t you seen that happening with privatisation in other areas apart form education? I have often argued that in Pakistan the education is handed over to private sector in the midst of a weak public commitment to education. In the West, it happens under the conditions of a strong public commitment to education. This difference is critical. In Pakistan, nearly all education policies, except the one under PPP’s first rule, have consistently and actively invited the private sector to ‘play its role’ in shouldering the burden of the state. These national education policies have always acknowledged that state just cannot do education alone. But please also note that Pakistan [unlike the United States which keeps contracting folks like XE hither and thither] has never asked the private sector to help with its defence, or invited them to run its nuclear facilities. There are some clearly recognised spheres of acceptable failure and social and health services are included in them. Pakistani state, and by proxy its political elite, has never been serious about and committed to the idea of mass education. Privatisation, therefore, happens under a weak commitment to public interest embodied in education.

But what is wrong with it? Given the wonderful scientific looking evidence that private is good, let us just advocate for a policy that sees state out of the business of education and all would be hunky dory after that.

But, attractive as it may sound, it will be good if the well meaning individuals and groups who spend their time thinking about education policy keep their sights on this obvious absence of a robust ‘public domain’ in Pakistan.  And its absence is felt, more than anything else, in education. It would be useful to also consider examples of how the public domain operates to protect public interest in other countries. The court case that I mentioned in the beginning is one such example. Here are some excerpts that illuminate the grounds on which the court found the use of public funds for vouchers unacceptable. As stated in the order:

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the Scholarship Program violates the blanket prohibition enumerated in Article V, Section 34 that forbids state funds from being provided to any denominational or sectarian institution or association. This clause, which was not considered in Americans United, reflects the conviction that sectarian interests are inherently private. The Court finds, and the record is unquestioned, that 19 of the 23 Private School Partners participating in the Scholarship Program are “denominational or sectarian institutions or associations” for the purposes of Article V, Section 34.

Accordingly, the Court finds that, not only have Plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to establish a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that the Scholarship Program violates Article V, Section 34 of the Colorado Constitution, thereby creating a clear and certain right to mandatory or permanent injunctive relief. (p.60)

Also read p-9 through 15 of this decision for more details on the evidence of violation of constitutional provisions.

Also notice the seriousness with which the court views the state’s ‘lack of control’ on instruction schools that are utilising public funds.

Relying on Owens v. Colo. Cong. of Parents, where the Colorado Supreme Court rejected an unconstitutional state-wide school voucher program because the program directed school districts to turn over a portion of their locally-raised funds to nonpublic schools over whose instruction the districts had no control, Plaintiffs contend that the “local control” provision contained in Article IX, Section 15 of the Colorado Constitution requires that local school boards “have control of instruction in the public schools of their respective districts” and the “responsibility for the instruction of their students.” See 92 P.3d 933, 938 (Colo. 2004). Relying on this statement, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants in this action have violated Article IX, Section 15 because the Douglas County School District exercises no control over the curricula, educational goals, hiring policies, or enrollment procedures of the Private School Partners. (p.64).

The court finally blocks the voucher program by saying that “the legislative history of the Contracting Statute compels the conclusion, and the Court finds, that the final version of the Contracting Statute does not confer upon a public school or school board the broad authority, as Defendants suggest, to exclusively contract with a private school to provide all educational services rendered to select students.” (p.68).

This, and similar others, are good examples of public domain in action. Also, they may not be restricted to the United States only. I am sure, if we look for them, we will be able to find examples of how a robust ‘public domain,’ operates in societies that take the idea of ‘public interest’ seriously. As David Marquand puts it:

Public domain is both priceless and precarious—a gift of the history, which is always at risk. It can take shape only in a society in which the notion of a public interest, distinct from private interests, has taken root; and,…

He adds:

…historically speaking, such societies are rare breeds. [emphasis is mine].

Disclaimer: The external websites are quoted on this blog to provide the readers with a range of opinions on any given topic to help them reflect on their own questions concerning the issue being discussed. This blog does not endorse views expressed on external websites unless explicitly stated

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

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