Lessons in School Choice

Parents and children have quite a few decisions to make at the start of a school year. From clothes and computers to pencils and pens, the list of choices seems endless. And for many children, even the school itself has been picked, with more students attending something other than the local public school.

Yes, a lot has changed since Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (search ) first proposed education vouchers (search) in 1955. Back then, no one paired the words "school" and "choice." Vermont and Maine were operating voucher-like "tuitioning" programs in small towns, and Minnesota had an education tax deduction. But vouchers, tax credits, public school open enrollment, dual enrollment, home schooling and charter schools were things in the distant future.

Today, Friedman's vision is finally becoming reality. Why?

It's largely because more and more parents are objecting to the sorry state of some of our schools. In inflation-adjusted dollars, Americans are paying twice as much for public elementary and secondary education today as they did in 1970. Yet only a third of America's fourth graders can read proficiently, according to the Department of Education. Nearly 60 percent of high school seniors lack even a basic understanding of American history.

The news is bleaker for low-income children: More than half can't read or perform mathematics at a basic level, as measured by federal assessments. While some excellent public schools exist, our monopolistic education system is leaving too many children behind.

Still, for years, when a student was struggling or a parent was dissatisfied, the only option was to move or pay for a private education (search ) -- a choice (and a sacrifice) many families simply couldn't afford.

Controlled choice programs and magnet schools (search), set up mostly to foster racial balance, provided some families access to better schools, but real change didn't occur until the 1980s. In 1985, Minnesota became the first state to let junior and senior high school students take college courses at public expense. A few years later, it instituted the first interdistrict public school-choice law (search ), allowing students to attend schools in other districts.

In 1987, Iowa established the first education tax credit (search). In 1990, Wisconsin adopted a voucher program for poor students in Milwaukee. The first charter school (search) opened in Minnesota in 1992. Five years later, the Arizona legislature introduced a new kind of education tax credit designed to encourage contributions to tuition scholarship funds (search ).

In the 15 years between the Iowa tax credit and last year's Supreme Court decision upholding the use of religious schools in the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (search ), most states had enacted at least one public or private school-choice program.

And over the past decade, privately funded voucher programs (search ) have flourished, helping tens of thousands of families nationwide afford a good education.

As of this year:

-- Six states have voucher programs.

-- Six have education tax credits or deductions.

-- 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter-school laws (search ).

-- 15 states guarantee public school choice within or between districts. (Other states have choice programs that are optional for districts, target only specific populations, and/or require that parents pay tuition.)

-- 21 states have comprehensive dual enrollment programs that enable high school students to attend college classes for high school and postsecondary credit at minimal or no expense to the student. Others have limited programs.

-- All states allow parents to homeschool (search ) their children.

Researchers studying both private and public scholarship programs, charter schools and home schooling have been able to confirm what parents have always known: School choice (search ) works. It improves academic performance, increases parental satisfaction, and fosters accountability within public-school systems.

And the improvements aren't seen just in the students who leave the public schools. Research indicates that public schools and districts improve their services and operations in response to competition from charter schools.

Let's remember: The goal of an educated citizenry predates public education as we know it. The latter isn't sacrosanct: Institutions are made to serve people, not the other way around. The old solutions -- more programs, more regulations, new computers, lower class sizes, and higher spending -- haven't brought us the improvement we know children need. Competition and freedom have always worked for Americans, and should be given a chance to improve education today.

Giving all families the opportunity to choose a good school for their children was once a vision seen by only a few. Today it's an idea that's gaining ground. We owe it to today's children to push ahead, until we give every student a real choice and a chance to succeed.

Krista Kafer is a senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation.