What Glenn Youngkin's State Mask Order Gets Right—and Wrong


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This article is excerpted from LiberatED, a weekly email newsletter where FEE Senior Education Fellow Kerry McDonald brings you news and analysis on current education and parenting topics. Click here to sign up.

I don’t like masks, and I especially don’t like mask mandates. That’s why I cheered when the new governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, repealed mask mandates for schools upon taking office earlier this month. His executive order allows parents to decide whether or not to mask their children at school, rather than follow a blanket mask policy.

“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents. Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents,” Youngkin said

That all sounds good, but digging deeper into Youngkin’s order left me disappointed. It applies to both public and private schools throughout the state. Youngkin has jurisdiction over government-run schools, but he shouldn’t be interfering with the private sector. If a private school in Virginia wants to have a mask mandate for its students, it should be able to do so without parents being allowed to curtail that mandate through a governor’s executive order. If parents don’t like a school’s masking policies, they can select a different private school for their children that doesn’t require masks. 

The competition for students in the private school sector can influence policies in meaningful ways. If a large number of parents threatens to remove students from a private school over forced masking policies, for instance, it creates an incentive for the school to change its policies. With government-run schools, the competitive pressure simply isn’t there. Parents can, and should, speak out and share their preferences in all settings, but they will have more success and impact when they are directly paying for a service than when the government controls the service.

This is how the free market works. Some private schools may decide to require masks while others won’t, and consumers can choose accordingly. When the government interferes in the private sector, as Youngkin is doing, it erodes the elegant process of voluntary exchange upon which a flourishing free market relies.  

As the renowned journalist, and founding FEE board member, Henry Hazlitt once said: “The 'private sector' of the economy is, in fact, the voluntary sector; and the 'public sector' is, in fact, the coercive sector.” When the government gets involved in the private sector, it injects coercion. 

We may not like school mask mandates, and we may applaud politicians for eliminating them, but we cannot allow their orders to apply to the private sector. We can try to persuade schools to eliminate their mask requirements. New articles this week in both The Washington Post and The Atlantic make the case against mandatory masking in schools. But private schools and businesses should be free to institute whatever policies they choose, just as we are free to give them our money or not. 

This is the beauty of voluntary exchange in a free market. Keep the government out of it.

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