Sixty-one years ago, Milton Friedman had an idea that was radical for its time. While government should fund education, families should have the freedom to choose which school at which to use their respective funding. With a voucher equal to the size of the government's per-pupil spending, parents could pick a school and use the voucher to cover all or part of its tuition.
An event Tuesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation looked back at Friedman and all that has come from his idea of school choice.
Virginia Walden Ford, a visiting fellow at the foundation, told stories of students she had met that benefited from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Through the program, more than 6,000 Washington students, largely low-income and minority, get tuition scholarships to private schools. One student's story stood out, the story of a boy named Carlos Battle.
Battle came from one of the most dangerous parts of Washington, so dangerous his mother would rarely let him outside. When Battle's mother signed him up for the program, Ford asked him what he planned to do with his life. "He said, 'I'm probably going to do what I've seen in my community,' which was selling drugs or getting in trouble or whatever," Ford said. "But I watched him four years later graduate from Georgetown Day as a top student. He was the first African American student body president." Battle graduated with a 4.0 grade point average, went to Northeastern University and graduated from there two weeks ago.
Friedman knew school choice would help racial minorities. "There is not a single thing you could do in this world that would do more to improve the condition of the black people in the lowest income classes ... than the voucher scheme," he once said.
Stories aside, studies show school choice programs are working.
Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas, spoke at the event about analysis he had done compiling 19 studies of 11 school choice programs. His analysis found that private school choice students overwhelmingly outperformed their peers in reading and math test scores (after four years of attendance), high school graduation, college graduation, employment and lifetime earnings.
Wolf added that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program specifically perform well. He noted one study that showed the Milwaukee program made male students less likely to engage in criminal activity.
Now, school choice has moved beyond Friedman's simple voucher idea. In addition to school voucher programs, there are public charter schools, magnet schools, cyber schools and voucher programs funded through tax credits for donating to scholarship organizations.
The newest form of school choice is education savings accounts. At the Heritage event, Lindsey Burke, an education policy fellow at Heritage, described vouchers as the rotary phone of school choice: useful in their time, but kind of limited. Education savings accounts are more like a smart phone, with seemingly endless opportunities and plenty of flexibility.
In short, the government puts funds into an account that parents can spend toward a variety of educational needs, often including private school tuition, tutoring, educational therapy and textbooks. Sometimes the funds are equal to the student's entire per-pupil spending, but other times it is only a portion.
Most types of school choice are implemented at the state and local level. But there are some ways the federal government can spread school choice. Burke laid out several ways the federal government could take action.
For example, through further support of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which will lose its federal funding at the end of September 2016. The federal government could also opt to make every student in Washington eligible for an education savings account with their federal funding. The feds could also allow funds for Title I, a program for low-income families, and IDEA funds, a program for special education students, to be portable, so that families could still take advantage of those funds even if they didn't attend their locally assigned public school.
The federal government could also give education savings accounts to students on Indian reservations, something John McCain has proposed. Those students are subject to some of the most deplorable schools in the country, run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education.
Today, there are 43 states with public charter schools. According to the American Federation for Children, 22 states have private school choice programs. More than 300,000 students across the country are in private school choice programs and 2.7 million are in public charter schools.
If Milton Friedman hadn't pushed his idea of school choice, none of it might have happened.
Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.