Charting a New World of Educational Freedom

School choice has entered a new world. Because Americans are increasingly vocal on providing parents the ability to choose their children’s schools, states are adopting broad-based school choice initiatives. Those successes can be attributed to various individuals, groups, and campaigns nationwide. However, it is school choice’s “Christopher Columbus” who deserves recognition for starting this movement more than 50 years ago.

In 1955, Milton Friedman introduced school choice as a way to improve the quality of American education. His idea was simple: Give parents access to their children’s public education funding, rather than require they attend the government (public) schools nearest their homes.

“Governments could require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on ‘approved’ educational services,” Friedman wrote in 1955. “Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an ‘approved’ institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds. The role of the government would be limited to assuring that the schools met certain minimum standards such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to assure that they maintain minimum sanitary standards.”

Because of vested interests in the education arena, Friedman’s suggestions were ignored. And, as a result, the cost of public education doubled while its academic performance stayed the same. As Friedman noted, that shouldn’t come as a surprise because that’s exactly what monopolies do: They offer a product of similar, if not worse, value at a higher price than normally would be allowed if they had to compete in the free market.

But those days are over. Many states are broke, preventing them from dropping more money out of airplanes over public schools. And many parents are fed up, wondering why their kids are underperforming or unmotivated in K-12 schools and unprepared for their college courses and future careers.

Because of that sentiment and cash crunch, last year a historic number of choice programs were enacted across the country. Substantiating that momentum, the Wall Street Journal called 2011 “The Year of School Choice.”

Today, 18 states and the District of Columbia provide some type of private school choice for their residents. And more states continue to come online. Already in 2012, Virginia has joined the school choice “family;” New Hampshire’s legislature has passed a school choice measure; Florida and Arizona expanded their programs; and Louisiana dramatically increased the scope of its school voucher program. Oregon is behind the curve, with no significant private school choice programs―yet. But widening charter school and online school options hopefully will soon lead to more school choice for all Oregon children.

Of course, no state has followed Friedman’s vision entirely―i.e., school choice for all families. Indiana and Louisiana are close, in that both make more than half their states’ student populations eligible.

But Friedman’s vision was not for school choice to be just another government program. He wanted to see school choice fundamentally change the way public education operates from its current structure that supports schools to a better model that empowers parents. Both rich families and poor ones can receive government funding when their kids use public schools. And both rich and poor should be able to receive government funding for their kids to use vouchers.

It took America more than 50 years to reach today’s environment in which parent empowerment in education is celebrated, not ridiculed. Moving forward, the late Milton Friedman’s voucher idea is more important than ever, for it is the tool advocates can use to navigate the new world for school choice they helped discover.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, which is participating in July 31st Friedman Legacy for Freedom Day, an international event celebrating the late Milton Friedman on what would have been his 100th birthday.

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