A chant that has been gaining popularity is that where education is concerned, ‘the money should follow the child’. A second, related chant is that ‘parents should be able to decide how to spend their education dollars’.
If you listen with your heart, these sound true, even obvious. You can almost hear birds singing in the background.
But — as with many chants — if you listen with your head, some troubling questions arise.
In the first chant, when they say ‘the money’, which money are they talking about?
Is it just money that we find lying around in piles, waiting to be scooped up and handed out?
Or is it money that is first earned by people trading value for payment, and then taken from them without their consent, to satisfy other people’s desires instead of their own?
The latter is what Frederic Bastiat called legal plunder:
See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.
Imagine a parent going to the home of his neighbor and saying: ‘My child’s fair share of the value of your property is $75. Hand it over, or I’ll hurt you.’ How many orphans would that create?
When someone says ‘the money should follow the child’, what he really means is that ‘your money should follow his child’. And that your home should be taken from you if you disagree.
In the second chant, aren’t parents already able to decide how to spend their education dollars, by sending their kids to private schools, or pursuing other education alternatives? Of course they are, just as they are able to decide how to spend their food dollars, their clothing dollars, their transportation dollars, their housing dollars, and so on.
What the chanters are really saying is that parents should be able to decide how to spend other people’s dollars. Calling them ‘education dollars’ obscures this, but doesn’t change it.
It’s nearly impossible to have a civil and productive discussion about public policy when one or both sides are trying to disguise the nature and effects of their proposed policies, by intentionally using the wrong words.
For example, if what we’re trying to do is to help people who can’t afford to educate their own kids, why do we consider only solutions that are designed to provide welfare to parents who can? Largely because of the misleading names that we use.
When I start hearing supporters of school choice chanting ‘your money should follow my child’, and ‘parents should be able to decide how to spend your dollars’, … well, I’ll still disagree with them. But at least we won’t be talking past each other, because we’ll all be calling things by their right names — which as Confucius noted, is the first step towards wisdom.