What’s the Difference Between K–12 and College Again?

Published June 7, 2016

School Choice Weekly #140

The Obama administration has announced a new program that will allow poor high-school students to apply for federal college grants to take classes that will give them both college and high-school credit (“dual credit” classes). This is a bad idea overall, but it raises interesting questions about the Left’s self-contradictions.

Briefly, it’s a bad idea to give Pell grants to more people because the Pell program is bloated, fraudulent, and ineffective, as economist Richard Vedder has shown for many decades now. Expanding a distorting subsidy program ultimately expands its harmful effects. Free federal money incentivizes colleges to raise prices and lower quality, and it gives students more reasons to take college less seriously because they’re not paying for it. The expansion amounts to the Obama administration using taxpayer money to prop up a Democratic Party constituency.

Larry Sand at Union Watch points out the parallels yet contradictions between most of the Left’s opposition to K–12 vouchers and support for college vouchers (a.k.a. government subsidies).

When it comes to public funds going to private schools, there has always been an arbitrary line drawn between k–12 and college. Pell Grants, which traditionally have been awarded to college students in need to use at the college of their choice – public, private, secular or religious – have been championed by the teachers unions. Yet the same unions rail against any similar vouchers on the elementary–high school level. But, in a very interesting move, Pell Grants can now be used by high schoolers as part of a dual enrollment program. Under the new plan announced just last week, thousands of low-income high-school students in nearly two dozen states, will, starting this summer, be able to get federal grants to take college courses for credit. And some of the 44 participating colleges are private. So with Pell Grants now stretching into high schools, it will be interesting to see if the teachers unions weigh in. Nothing from them yet. In any event, the slippery slope may have become just a bit slicker.

Actually, the line between K–12 and college is not arbitrary, and Milton Friedman explained why in his seminal essay on the role of government in education. Friedman essentially revitalized the American Founders’ understanding of public education, which was to develop America’s young people into good citizens capable of governing themselves, as our unique system of government requires. Therefore, he argued, government subsidies for education are justified only for a general education that befits people to act as free citizens – not to provide personal economic benefits. K–12 education should be that broad, citizenry-oriented education, while higher education and apprenticeships were the narrow, personal kind of education.

This is why one can argue for vouchers in K–12 while opposing vouchers in higher education. A question for another time remains, however: With much of K–12 now focused on narrow individual benefits rather than the common good, does it merit government subsidy? And to what extent, and under what conditions?

SOURCES: Associated Press, Center for College Affordability, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Union Watch


  • FLORIDA: One hundred African-American pastors have signed a letter telling the NAACP it should drop a lawsuit against the state’s tax credit scholarship program: “We see no principled reason to fight an education program that is targeted exclusively at low-income children and has a 14-year track record of helping Black students succeed.”
  • PARENTS: Most school choice laws make little mention of and even less definitions for the rights and duties of parents, finds a new review.
  • WASHINGTON: Six of Washington’s charter schools will remain open after they received new leases on life once the state re-legalized charters. To stay afloat after the state supreme court struck down the authorizing law last year, one charter school reverted to being a private school and others functioned as homeschool resource centers.

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