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Is 2011 Milton Friedman's Year of School Choice?

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Sixteen years ago, as students were enjoying their summer break, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman issued his own report card on the American education system. In a guest commentary in The Washington Post, he described it as “backward,” often producing “dismal results.”

Not much has changed in 16 years.

Friedman noted that education had been stuck in a 19th-century model for decades, producing results that hadn’t kept up with our fast-paced world. That’s why he offered his vision of privatizing a portion of the educational establishment with school choice, to provide a variety of learning opportunities for students and to offer competition to public schools.

In 2011, we may have finally launched Friedman’s Year of School Choice.

No fewer than 18 voucher, tax-credit, and education-savings-account programs have been adopted since January by state legislatures, Congress, and one local school board.

While students are home relaxing, states and cities are implementing new programs that allow parents to choose freely the schools most appropriate for their children. No longer will they be assigned to schools based on their addresses alone.

Thanks to support from groups across the political spectrum, proposals that met resistance for years are now becoming law—even in states with strong unions, such as Ohio and Wisconsin. It’s because many now appreciate what Friedman began saying years ago—it costs less to educate a child with a voucher or privately funded tax-credit scholarship than to send him or her to a public school.

Among the new or expanded programs are:

Vouchers. Indiana passed the nation’s most extensive voucher program this spring, offering vouchers to middle-class families earning up to $61,000, with no cap on the number of vouchers awarded after three years. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program this summer. That program, the nation’s oldest, now will include vouchers for middle-class families earning up to $67,000; a similar program was enacted for Racine, Wis. Ohio will quadruple the number of vouchers available to students stuck in failing schools by 2013. Arizona adopted education savings accounts, a voucher-type program to cover education costs for special-needs children. And Congress reinstated a popular voucher program for low-income families in the District of Columbia.

"In 2011, we may have finally launched Friedman’s Year of School Choice."

Tax credits. Corporations or individuals may donate to scholarship-granting organizations to gain a credit on taxes due in their states. These scholarships help children attend private schools. This year, a new tax-credit program was enacted in Oklahoma, while existing ones were expanded in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. The amount of money that can be raised for scholarship organizations and donated by individuals and companies varies by state.

Other private choice. In Louisiana, parents who send their children to private schools will be able to write off their state income taxes up to $5,000 of tuition per child, thanks to legislation passed this summer. In Indiana, parents who do the same or spend money home-schooling their children will be able to write off up to $1,000 in any educational expenses. North Carolina parents of special-needs students will earn a tax credit of up to $6,000 for educational expenses for their children. All this is designed to encourage more educational options for families.

Remarkably in this year of school choice, even the education bureaucracy has started to drop its resistance—and, in some cases, to put its toe in the water—regarding voucher or tax-credit programs, especially those for disadvantaged children.

Throughout the country, a smattering of school board members have been elected who aren’t afraid to embrace school choice, whether it be through charter schools, tax credits, or voucher programs. In Douglas County, Colo., for example, the locally elected school board enacted a program offering 500 vouchers worth up to $4,575 each. Some elected officials say they believe only competition will prompt the education establishment to work to improve public schools.

The explosion of new and expanded school choice programs shows that Milton Friedman got it right when it comes to mounting frustration with monopolies.

“Support for free choice of schools has been growing rapidly and cannot be held back indefinitely by the vested interests of the unions and educational bureaucracy,” Friedman wrote in the Post in 1995. “I sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in one state or another, which will then sweep like a wildfire through the rest of the country as it demonstrates its effectiveness.”

In 2011, that wildfire broke out.

Vol. 30, Issue 37

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