by Barry A. Liebling
In the perpetual war between champions of freedom and pushers of statism two battles – ObamaCare and charter schools – are especially noteworthy. They are interesting because they personify a larger philosophical and political conflict. In some respects they are mirror images of one another, and the success or failure of each has ramifications for freedom.
Consider the similarities. Each is associated with short, easily recognized catch phrases. For ObamaCare the term “individual mandate” is a ubiquitous identifier. To ObamaCare supporters the individual mandate is the cornerstone that makes the immensely complicated and expensive law workable. Citizens must be forced to participate (that is, pay for coverage) – whether they like it or not – to contribute to “the greater good.” Critics of ObamaCare see the individual mandate as proof that the legislation is overbearing and a violation of liberty.
The terms “individual choice” and “parent choice” are associated with charter schools. The idea is that parents should have an alternative to conventional government schools. And, significantly, a charter school is not forced on them; they can stay with their local school if they wish. Supporters claim that this leads to educational outcomes that are potentially – not inevitably – better. Critics deplore individual choice because they assert that government officials will – on the average – make wiser educational decisions than parents. Furthermore, they view the unconditional support of conventional government schools as intrinsically good and have no sympathy for competitors that might rock the boat.
The advocates for each have conspicuous manifest intentions as well as deeper, more fundamental objectives which relate to freedom.
ObamaCare boosters claim that the rationale for the law – officially named the Affordable Care Act – is to make certain that people without health insurance obtain it, that health insurance premiums become more affordable (a promised average decrease of $2,500 per family), and that the quality of health care is enhanced for Americans. That these outcomes are not likely to materialize makes the case for ObamaCare difficult to defend, unless you consider the essential objective of ObamaCare’s architects – to increase the reach and power of government, to have the government control, regulate, and supervise as much as possible. By this standard improvements in healthcare are nice but not crucial. The core goal is to put the state in the driver’s seat and use that advantage to further balloon government power – reducing freedom.
Charter school advocates say they want conventional government schools to compete with alternative schools that are funded by the government, are managed by private companies, and are intended to improve the educational outcomes of children (generally disadvantaged and from low income families) who attend. Of course, most charter school enthusiasts are motivated by this objective. But a small cadre of savvy, long-term-thinking supporters see that charter schools can be the first step in a movement to privatize education in general. To the degree that parents and students are more pleased with the outcomes achieved by increased choice they will develop an appetite for more autonomy. They may come to understand that they are better off setting their own course than surrendering to government bureaucrats. And the end game is to get the government out of education all together – more freedom.
What happens when things go wrong – when either program does not fulfill its purported mission? An ObamaCare failure is far more politically consequential than a charter school failure.
Some Americans will be better off with ObamaCare and will be helped by the sledge hammer legislation. All government programs have some beneficiaries – at other people’s expense. But outweighing the winners are the losers. Millions of Americans have already been burned by ObamaCare. Many have lost their insurance and must replace it with more expensive, less desirable policies. More millions are likely to suffer a similar fate as additional features of the law go into effect. Obama administration officials realize this which is why they are deliberately postponing sections of the law until after the next election cycle. Those who are harmed by ObamaCare notice it right away, can recognize the source of their pain, and are motivated to escape and to strike back via political action.
Not all charter schools meet parent expectations. Some perform poorly. When one of them fails to deliver, the harm – although traumatic to both students and parents – can be remedied. Parents who are not satisfied can always send their children back to the conventional government school. In some cases they can enroll their children in a competitive charter school with a better reputation. Since there was no coercion to enroll in a charter school, the level of parent anger is limited. The probability of a strong parent backlash against charter schools is relatively small.
The most significant opponents of charter schools are the teachers unions. They have the most to lose. Union management dreads the prospect of having to compete for students, of giving up their power and influence, of facing teachers who will be furious if their pay, security, or benefits are jeopardized. But, in contrast to a flawed ObamaCare rollout, there is no immediate threat from the growth of charter schools. In the worst case for the unions, the impact of charter schools will not be felt for several years. No need to panic, yet.
While the ObamaCare and charter school battles are encouraging for the cause of freedom they are not decisive. Even if ObamaCare crashes and charter schools thrive there is no guarantee that the country takes the right path. ObamaCare could be replaced by another government fiasco – possibly designed by Republicans – with the promise that this time “we’ll get it right.” Charter schools might stagnate as permanent servants to government overseers. For liberty to prevail many more Americans must be convinced that freedom is essential for human flourishing and that the role of government must be limited to protecting individual rights. ObamaCare’s failure and charter schools’ success will help, but it’s not enough.
*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***