D. Dowd Muska


Happy National School Choice Week

January 13, 2011

Nearly six decades ago, an economist began to question the core assumption behind K-12 schools.

In Economics and the Public Interest, Milton Friedman observed: “Education is today largely paid for and almost entirely administered by governmental bodies or non-profit institutions. This situation has developed gradually and is now taken so much for granted that little explicit attention is any longer directed to the reasons for the special treatment of education even in countries that are predominantly free enterprise in organization and philosophy.”

Friedman, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on monetary policy, called for the “denationalization of education.” In place of government control, subsidies should be “made available to parents regardless where they send their children -- provided only that it be to schools that satisfy specified minimum standards.” Doing so, he believed, would produce “a wide variety of schools … to meet the demand.”

The idea was simple. It was workable. It aligned with traditional American notions of individualism, parental rights, and voluntary exchange.

And Americans wholly rejected it.

For decades, free-market advocates watched as student achievement fell, schools demanded more tax revenue, and teacher unions procured more perks -- but less accountability -- for their members. Educrats spent millions to demonize the word “voucher.” (Cultural elites made countless in-kind contributions to the campaign.)

In the 1990s, reformers’ frustration gave way to guarded optimism. Milwaukee and Cleveland launched gutsy, Friedmanite programs that couldn’t be killed. Arizona crafted an indirect voucher scheme, which allowed tax credits for donations to nonprofit, scholarship-bestowing organizations. In 1999, Florida adopted a statewide voucher system that would later be struck down by the Sunshine State’s Supreme Court. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, that vouchers passed constitutional muster at the federal level. With the High Court’s blessing, the dam began to burst. Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Utah adopted limited, but wildly popular, vouchers and/or tax credits.

According to the 2009-10 yearbook published by the Alliance for School Choice, “18 publicly funded private school choice programs [operate] in 11 states.” In the 2009-10 school year, nearly 180,000 children benefited from education-freedom legislation.

It can no longer be ignored: Friedman’s revolution is underway. Once-unthinkable progress has been made, polls are favorable, and some prominent liberals have switched from adamant opposition to steadfast support. It’s time to celebrate, and that’s the idea behind National School Choice Week.

Starting January 23, seven days of events held across the country will “provide a concentrated focus on [the school-choice] mission -- a time for the media and the public to hear our resounding message and a time to bring new voices into the chorus.”

An expo at the Florida State Fairgrounds, a rally at Georgia’s capitol, a legislative briefing in Iowa, a viewing of the documentary “The Cartel” in St. Paul, a get-together at a pub in Phoenix. National School Choice Week’s website lists dozens of events. Here’s just a partial list of participants: Black Alliance for Educational Options, Association of Christian Schools International, Catholic Partnership Schools, National Coalition for Public School Options, NativityMiguel Network of Schools, Citizens for Educational Freedom, Agudath Israel, Independent Women’s Forum, Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Association of American Educators.

As activists and educators tell their stories and plan for future victories, the existence of charitable vouchers must not be overlooked. The forgotten heroes of choice are the private foundations that use donors’ contributions to free kids from lousy government schools.

Do-it-yourself vouchers get infinitesimal media coverage. After all, conservatives and libertarians helping poor and inner-city kids doesn’t fit the mainstream media’s narrative about right-wingers. Without the support of tech moguls, who squander millions on doomed-to-fail reforms of government schools, the Children’s Scholarship Fund has established affiliates in 23 states. In the current school year, “26,384 low-income children … nationwide are using CSF scholarships to attend the private or parochial school of their family’s choice.”

The schooling establishment continues to shriek and stomp whenever an education-freedom proposal is considered. But it’s fighting a rising tide of successful voucher and tax-credit legislation, ticked-off taxpayers, grateful parents, and satisfied students. With states and municipalities struggling to balance budgets, options are sure to be expanded. Florida’s new governor is pressing ahead with reforms his transition team called “game-changing proposals.” Governors in New Mexico and Nevada show promise, too.

Born at the apogee of Cold War, technocratic, rule-by-alleged-experts Bigness, Milton Friedman’s advocacy of decentralized, choice-driven education was not of its time.

Times change.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

# # # # #