Americans are free to choose where to live and work, what products to buy, and which services to use. Rightfully so, these are private decisions.
There is one important domain where Americans lack freedom of choice: primary education. State and local governments have the power to force students into public schools, regardless of parental choice.
The government monopoly in education means children’s educational prospects in public schools are determined by their families’ neighborhoods. The U.S. public education system should instead provide parents choices about where to educate their children. One way to expand this is through education vouchers.
Education vouchers are not a new idea. In the mid-1950s, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman proposed introducing an education voucher system to improve the quality of American schools. His ideas inspired Chile to implement a national voucher system in the 1980s.
The underlying concept of a voucher system is that per-pupil funding follows the student, not the school. This is being implemented in Louisiana, where children in failing schools receive tax dollars to attend a school of their choice. Surprisingly, this idea is controversial; the Department of Justice has filed a motion to close down the program.
By giving students’ parents fixed dollar amounts every year to be used for education, they are free to choose public, private, or charter schools for their children. Vouchers can also be used to pay for other educational expenses such as tutoring, online classes, or textbooks. Every child is different and voucher systems acknowledge this reality.
Vouchers also have positive effects on the education system as a whole. Schools have to compete against each other for students’ dollars, thereby enhancing performance at public and private schools and eventually improving the entire system.
Since the 1990s, state-level education voucher programs have been available for disadvantaged students. Voucher programs such as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (1990), the New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation Program (1997), and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (2004) differ in specifics, but what they have in common is across-the-board positive evaluations. Students who used vouchers to attend different schools benefited academically. In particular, there were large, positive effects on reading for African-American children.
In addition to the Louisiana school choice program, Florida operates the Opportunities Scholarship Program. This originally allowed students from failing schools to transfer to any school with better performance. In January of 2006, the Florida Supreme Court removed the option of attending private schools through the program.
School choice programs and education vouchers are sound fiscal policy. According to a study on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program published in Education Finance and Policy, the program produced benefits of $2.62 for every dollar spent.
It costs an average of $13,000 a year to educate a student in public schools. Imagine the success if this money were provided directly to parents for education. Education vouchers would be at-worst budget neutral, and at-best a substantial money saver.
Vouchers are commonplace in other policy areas. Food stamp recipients under the federal SNAP program are not told where to shop. Instead, they are provided vouchers and given choices on where to spend them.
One complaint about vouchers is that competition would lead to some schools closing and some teachers losing their jobs. This generates strong opposition from entrenched interests such as teachers unions. However, qualified teachers would still have jobs. Talented individuals with gifts for teaching would be in higher demand if schools began competing on value, which could attract more people to the occupation.
Others are wary of vouchers because they worry any school could receive taxpayer money, even those of poor quality. While this argument is based in laudable merits, a concern for children, detractors of vouchers forget that low-quality schools would close from a lack of funds. The public school system may deteriorate, but its replacement would be far superior.
Under a voucher system, parents could send their children to any school. This possibility creates large financial incentives for schools to open and work to be the best. The better they educate students, the more money they receive. If a parent is unhappy with their child’s current school, they are free to move them to another—this is not an option in the current public school system.
Parents are the best positioned to make education choices for their children. Concerns that many are not capable of choosing the best schools are overstated. The vast majority of parents care deeply about their children’s educations and futures. In 2013, 69,000 applications were submitted for New York City charter schools, even though only 18,600 seats were available. These parents, similar to most others, put in extra effort for the 25 percent chance that their children could receive a better opportunity for future success.
Another problem with these arguments is that the current public education system is failing students. In New York City, 35 percent of students fail to graduate high school. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of those who do graduate are unprepared for college. These results were even worse before the public school reforms begun by previous School Chancellor Joel Klein and outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Private schools do much better than American public schools. In test scores, college preparation, and overall quality of education, private schools far exceed public—especially for schools in low-income neighborhoods. The key to success is adaptation and competition, and vouchers would infuse both into public schools. Vouchers would extend to low-income families a choice that is already available to wealthy families.
Education vouchers are the best of both worlds. Market competition forces schools to constantly work to improve, and government funding ensures all students have access to primary education. There is no excuse to delay helping vulnerable children secure that which is essential to escape poverty—a quality education.
Jared Meyer is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute; you can follow him on Twitter here. Hannah Lange is a graduate student at American University and an intern at the Manhattan Institute.