A new program the Idaho Department of Education is calling “Advanced Opportunities” is being hailed as a “revolutionary” and “free-market” approach to improve student outcomes. The program works by giving public school students a $1,500 scholarship for every year skipped and graduated early, which can then be used for post-secondary education in the state.
The term “free market” appears to have slowly morphed into code for the insidious meddling of behavioral economics, invariably carried out with the power of government. In fact, there’s nothing market-based about subsidies, wealth redistribution, and a centrally directed incentive structure that treats students as pawns in a master plan rather than as capable, self-actualizing individuals.
In fairness, I can see where the program’s proponents are coming from. Students who are too bright to be stuck in high school for four years are allowed to leave early, and use the taxpayer resources they would have consumed for more productive endeavors. Sounds great. But, in fact, this reeks of social engineering.
In a free market, people pay for services they wish to consume. You pay for school, because you want what it has to offer, including classes and a diploma. In Idaho’s perverse model, it is the schools that effectively pay students for obtaining a diploma, which is precisely backward from how business is supposed to work.
If families were receiving back the same amount they pay in taxes for schools, that would be one thing, but in most cases not only will they receive significantly more (also known as a government subsidy), it is the state that gets to choose how those funds are spent. This is the illusion of choice — not actually allowing students to self-direct their learning.
Furthermore, the Idaho program assumes that early graduation is the best thing for students. Government always presumes to know what students need. And while some would undoubtedly flourish from graduating early, others would not. Yet the incentives are purposely lined up to encourage one behavior over the other, without any regard for individual variation.
When you establish these centralized incentives, it can push students in the wrong direction, or make them feel forced into a path they wouldn’t have chosen.
There’s a simpler and better way to reform education without all this technocratic tinkering. If you want to give students more options, repeal mandatory education laws and let them choose. If you want people to have more resources for education, stop taxing them for schools they don’t want to go to.
The problem with education policy is that it has all become about the details, while failing to examine fundamental philosophies of learning and childhood. It would be hard to think of a better example of missing the forest for the trees.
Policy becomes an endless debate about which forms of control work best, with nobody stopping to ask whether we need to control people at all. Freedom is never on the table.
You can tinker with funding and incentive structures forever, arguing over the minutia of whether vouchers are preferable to charter schools. But until we start to examine seriously the basic assumptions of the government-run education system, we are unlikely to make any real progress.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.