School Choice:
Agreeing with Mario Cuomo

Jude Wanniski
September 3, 1997

 

Memo To: Mario Cuomo
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: School Vouchers

I caught you in your "Meet the Press" debate with Pat Buchanan over "choice" and school vouchers and agree with you that the voucher idea is a distraction, a blind alley. Pat says vouchers would provide "competition" between public and private schools, but of course that competition already exists. Private schools produce students who have higher SAT scores than those who attend public schools, but that is almost entirely due to the fact that they have parents who have the time, inclination and education to parent them outside of school, and the money to pay for private tuition. In other words, if private schools were outlawed, the same students would still get the good grades, because their parents would see to it that they did their homework and had private tutoring. The most conservative Republicans, who oppose anything public except the military and maybe museums and zoos, and the Country Club set, who fancy the idea without giving it much thought, have been pushing school choice out of frustration with the collapse of public education's performance in the inner cities. It really can't be assumed that the nation as a whole is unhappy with the way the 57 million elementary and secondary public school kids are being educated. The problem is that a significant number are not. I agree with you that this problem can be fixed more easily by understanding the nature of the problem and fixing it, rather than by introducing a new bifurcated system. I went to public school through the second grade at P.S. 160 in Brooklyn, then Catholic school through the eighth grade, then public high school, at Brooklyn Tech, then public colleges, at Brooklyn College and U.C.L.A. Back in those days, the only edge you got in parochial school was a religious education. There was discipline in public and private schools, the difference being that if you could not be controlled in parochial school you were kicked out into the public schools, which had to have special schools here and there for the bad kids. The public school system worked then and there is no reason why it can't work again.

Where I disagree with you is in your advocacy of higher federal spending on elementary and secondary schools, public or private. I don't doubt that an easy $100 billion could be spent on bricks and mortar just to repair the dilapidation of the public schools. That money should be raised in public tax-free bond issues at state, county and municipal levels, where the public will vote approval. This will increasingly happen as the country is now finally back on a growth track, adding wealth instead of subtracting it by punishing the formation of capital. When you and I were kids after WWII, Governor, capital was in surplus and labor in short supply. When kids observe that their dads are able to support a family of five on a factory job, they at least shoot to equal their dad's achievement, if not hoping to do better than he could do, to be able to contribute to the family. When kids see that their fathers can't find a job with a high school degree, even with a federal job training program, because there are no jobs that pay more than a subsistence wage, their own survival instincts turn them away from book learning toward underground behavior, crime, drugs, and irresponsibility to the girls they impregnate.

After all these years, reading my book, counting yourself a "supply-side" Governor, why is it that you still can't resist taking shots at the Republican advocacy of a lower capital gains tax, as you did on "Meet the Press." Don't you yet understand that if the public schools are going to be helped, by any level of government, that wealth has to be created at any or all levels of the economy? You should be arguing for a lower capital gains tax at the federal level, which you once did in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. When there is more capital, labor will be in short supply, and wages will be bid up. There will be more parents who have the joint incomes to take their children out of public school into tuition-based private school. There will be less of a burden on the public school system, more funds available for the fewer students remaining. If we can double the wealth of the nation, all parents can afford to put their kids into private schools, parochial or secular. When that happens, there will be no public schools. It may take us a generation or two to get there, but that is the way to make it happen not by taking tax dollars away from the public schools and giving them to the private schools. I've never been able to understand why my conservative friends including old colleagues at The Wall Street Journal can so easily justify having all education spending, public and private, in one way or another flow through government's hands. Poor people should not be given taxpayer funds to attend the school of their choice. Once we do that, the country will be overtaken with all kinds of fruitcake schools lined up to get a slice of that melon. When public money is involved, the government must take responsibility for seeing to it that it is properly spent.

I noticed that Pat Buchanan could not answer your question about how the federal government will make sure that tax-credit funds are not spent on parochial schools where the crucifix is on display and where religious study is mandatory. He has that habit of solving 95% of an intractable problem, brushing off the 5% that makes his 95% solution unworkable. But governor, when you blithely announce that the problem can be taken care of by spending $105 billion instead of cutting the capital gains tax, you are no better than Buchanan.

The model we should use is that all Americans should work and save and invest as hard as they can if they wish to enjoy the things that income and wealth can buy. The government should tax this income and wealth in order to finance public goods that benefit everyone (including national defense, museums and zoos) plus those minimum levels of public service (health, education and welfare) that assure us those who can't take care of themselves are being taken care of. This means Republicans should not be asking government to give the poor the kind of education they could afford if they were rich, or to give the rich public subsidies which they should be striving to pay themselves. I'm constantly amazed at how easily Beltway Republicans who decry socialism for the masses can shift to arguments justifying socialism for the rich.

Just in case you're mistaken about the overall thrust of this missive, Governor, I am most definitely on your side only wishing you were more on mine.