Vouchers Are Here
Maybe not for schools, but for other social services
In 1955, Milton Friedman introduced the concept of vouchers as a method for introducing competition into public education and sparked the longest running education debate in American history. Proponents say that vouchers will make education more efficient and more fair. Opponents says that school vouchers will destroy public education and increase inequality.
When I was defending my dissertation on the politics of school vouchers back in 2000, five normally dignified professors got into a raging debate about the evils of school vouchers around our conference table. My research focused solely on the politics and not outcomes, so I was a little surprised at their strength of their opinions, but I shouldn’t have been. School vouchers will lead to a Yellowstone-style bar fight faster than any other nerd topic.
Reality may have made the debate irrelevant. As I’ve seen first hand, government is gradually giving up directly providing services in the disability arena, and in a more subtle way in education. States aren’t passing any law with the word “voucher” screaming in newspaper headlines, yet they are slowly decentralizing responsibilities to families and third-party vendors, especially in the disability world. Government workers process our paperwork, but won’t actually administer programs or actually have any contact with the people who need help.
For the past year and half, I have been slowly getting my son registered with the federal and state government bureaucracies for adult disability payments. The process itself is arduous, and I’m still not done yet. To navigate the admissions paperwork, a parent has to attend training sessions run by local disability non-profit organizations. I sometimes attend two webinars per week to learn how to fill in the forms properly, because one mistake could lead to a larger bureaucratic headache and a pricy lawyer.
These groups teach parents, among other lessons, how to describe their child in the bleakest terms in order to get a larger support payment from the government. We’re taught to imagine our child abandoned alone in a hotel room for three weeks. Could they feed themselves? Would they run out into the street and get hit by a car? Would they remember to take a shower? Would they still be alive at the end of the three-week stay in the imaginary hotel room?
I’ve gotten through the federal system, so my son gets a small check every month to cover food, housing, and clothing. When he gets through the state system, he’ll get some Monopoly money that can be spent on various programs aimed at keeping him busy all day. Then I’ll chose a private contractor (more webinars on how to do that), who will distribute the Monopoly money to private organizations that pretend to provide disabled people with job skills, take them to the YMCA for swim lessons, or just park them in front of a television to watch Disney movies all day.
Right now, my son goes to school all day. His bus picks him up at 7:15 and drops him off at 3:35. There, they take care of everything from therapy to job training to college support. Everything he needs is one place, and I know that he’s safe and being properly challenged.
When his entitlement for public education ends, I will have to take over. There are no full-day programs for high functioning people like my son, so I’m going to be driving him all around the county — a couple of hours at the community college, then an hour with a therapist, and then to the gym. I'll set up Friday night activities for him with like-minded people. I know plenty of young adults like Ian, who spend their entire day on the living room sofa, because their parents can’t manage all this.
The current system is highly reliant on parents like me to correctly fill out the paperwork and then do all the legwork to fill up the days of their loved ones. The state will step in when you’re dead, but until then, you get some Monopoly money and best wishes.
With me in charge, my son will be well-supported. I’ll investigate every program and provider to make sure that my son only interacts with the best people. I’ll drive him places, so he doesn’t have to wait an hour for the county disability bus. If I can’t find a program for him, I’ll create it. He’ll be well cared for.
But bad news for me, right? I really don’t want to be shuttling my kid around and researching programs for him. After all, driving my son to activities will eat into my newsletter-writing time. Since few parents have my resources, I’m sure that most disabled adults are in mediocre day programs, sitting in a room watching videos all day.
Did government do a better job caring for disabled people in the old days? No, the old institutions were horrifically bad and aimed at the most disabled folks. The government never helped mildly disabled folks at all, but they found work in family businesses and were supported by large extended families.
Today, we have a broader definition of disability and, with the decline of low skill jobs in factories and farms, fewer places for them to find independence. Don’t even get me started on the decline of the community, which was always an important safety net for marginalized people. The media has not given enough attention to the growing ranks of unsupported, vulnerable individuals. It’s a disaster in the making.
Overwhelmed and understaffed, state governments are having a hard time just managing basic services. Adding to their responsibility by directly supporting the growing needs of the unemployable is unthinkable, so checks — both real and virtual — are sent to parents and guardians.
I spent years researching education vouchers. Because there are few places in the country that actually use them, the debate was always very theoretical and academic. Unexpectedly, I was just dunked in the real thing. While nobody uses the word voucher in disability circles, that’s very much what we have. Because Ian won’t be fully in the system until June 2024, it’s too soon for me to give a full report. But I can already see the pros and cons.
I’m cross-posting this essay on both newsletters: The Great Leap and Apt. 11D. This Friday, I’ll probably continue to report on my favorite guilty pleasure — the international disaster that is the Harry and Meghan show.
I want to tackle the isolation studies:
Watching: We just loved White Lotus. Now, we’re watching the Crown (surprisingly pro-Charles), Yellowstone, and Wednesday.
Picture: We have done a Christmas card in years, but I did one this year for the oldies, who like getting cards on the holidays.