Friedman’s Foundation Rates Voucher Plans

By Caroline Hendrie — March 17, 2004 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A report card being issued this week on the nation’s school voucher programs is designed to underscore just how far many of them depart from “the gold standard” of universal school choice that was first proposed nearly a half-century ago by the economist Milton Friedman.

In its first-ever ranking of voucher programs, the foundation established by Mr. Friedman and his wife assigns letter grades, ranging from A-minus to C- minus, to 13 programs that provide publicly financed vouchers or tax breaks that help subsidize the costs of private K-12 schooling.

Topping the list is Florida’s voucher program for children with disabilities, while Ohio’s voucher program for Cleveland ranks second to last, barely above a modest tax- credit program in Iowa.

Read “Grading Vouchers: Ranking America’s School Choice Program,” from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.(Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader).

Mr. Friedman, who issued a now-famous call in 1955 to divorce the government financing of education from the operation of schools, said last week that he regards the report card as a “very important” step.

“You have to hold out a standard,” the 91-year-old economist said in a telephone interview from his home in San Francisco. “You may compromise, ... but you have to know where you’re headed.”

Making Comparisons

Where Mr. Friedman wants to head is toward a system in which all families can get vouchers equal to the public schools’ per-pupil budget, letting them shop among public and private schools. That concept, the report asserts, is “the gold standard of educational choice in America.”

No place has come close to adopting such a free-market program, however. Instead, policymakers have placed limits—on which students are eligible, what schools can participate, and how much money vouchers are worth—that vary greatly from program to program.

“It’s time to say, ‘Let’s look at these compared to the gold standard,’ ” said Robert C. Enlow, the executive director of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, based in Indianapolis. “There are enough programs out there to begin having a discussion about the different types of them and whether they’re good or bad.”

Word of the report was greeted with skepticism by voucher critics, including People for the American Way. The Washington- based liberal advocacy organization criticizes vouchers as ducking accountability to taxpayers and draining funding for public schools.

“The Friedman group has always been the ones that advanced vouchers in this country, and it’s in their best interest to make voucher programs look good across the country,” said Nancy Keenan, the group’s education policy director. “They don’t work, the money comes from our public schools, and private schools don’t perform any better.”

Since Wisconsin kicked off the modern voucher movement in 1990 with its Milwaukee program, voucher supporters have struggled in the legal and political arenas. So some observers see the Friedman Foundation’s decision to rank programs as a sign of the movement’s maturation.

‘The Gold Standard’

This newly created report card for voucher programs is based on a belief that they should reflect the true cost of education, be open to as many students as possible, and place few restrictions on schools.

Overall Grade

Rank of Program Rating Grade
Florida “McKay” Vouchers 3.6 A-
Arizona tax-credit vouchers 3.5 A-
Pennsylvania tax-credit vouchers 3.33 B+
Vermont “tuitioning” 2.97 B
Maine “tuitioning” 2.93 B
Florida “opportunity” vouchers 2.87 B
Colorado vouchers 2.73 B-
Florida tax-credit scholarships 2.43 C+
Illinois personal-tax credit 2 C
Minnesota personal-tax deduction 2 C
Wisconsin vouchers (Milwaukee) 1.83 C
Ohio vouchers (Cleveland) 1.8 C-
Iowa personal-tax credit 1.77 C-
SOURCE: Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation

“I used to argue that the school choice movement did not have the luxury of being able to debate about the relative merits of school choice programs,” said Clint Bolick, the president of two new national, pro-voucher advocacy groups. “We are now strong enough to have intrafamilial debate, and I think it’s very, very healthy.”

The School Choice Alliance and School Choice Advocates, the groups Mr. Bolick is leading, will focus on securing broader educational options for low-income families, not publicly financed vouchers for all. Yet he welcomed the report as “an opening salvo in putting forth one perspective,” and he predicted it would prompt “some spirited, good-faith debate.”

In the perspective of the 8-year-old Friedman Foundation, good voucher programs are defined in part by an absence of what it sees as red tape. The foundation’s complicated ranking system gives higher grades to programs that involve relatively fewer constraints on student eligibility, higher dollar values, and fewer rules affecting participating schools.

The idea is to distinguish “those voucher programs that are designed to be large, generous, and inclusive from those that are small, stingy, and restrictive,” according to the report, which was set to be made public on March 15.

In the student-eligibility category, Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities gets the top grade of an A-minus. It is open to all children eligible for special education, regardless of where they live or their families’ incomes. The lowest-scoring, with a C-minus, is the Wisconsin program, because only families in Milwaukee with incomes of less than 1.75 times the poverty level are eligible.

For purchasing power, five programs get A’s: Florida’s McKay program; Arizona’s tax credit for individuals who donate to scholarship-granting organizations; Pennsylvania’s tax credit for corporations that contribute to scholarship groups; and the “tuitioning” programs in Maine and Vermont, where students in towns without public schools at their grade levels are allowed to enroll in secular private schools at public expense.

Getting failing grades are personal-income-tax breaks for education expenses available in Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa, as well as Ohio’s Cleveland program, which provides vouchers worth up to $2,700.

The tax breaks in Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania get A’s in the “school eligibility” category because few limits are placed on qualifying schools. The worst grade in that category, a C-minus, goes to Maine’s program, in part because it requires “schools with large numbers of tuitioning students to administer the state test,” the report says.

Annual Project

Mr. Enlow, who wrote the report, said the foundation hopes to issue one each year from now on. “We feel there are enough programs out there to start reviewing them annually,” he said.

One program that was passed too recently for the report is the new federally financed voucher program approved this year for the District of Columbia.

Mr. Friedman made clear in the interview that he takes a dim view of the pilot, $14 million-a-year program, in part because it was packaged with funding increases of $13 million each to the capital city’s regular public school system and its growing network of public charter schools.

Mr. Friedman says those increases effectively triple the cost of the $7,500 vouchers, which in his view makes passage of the new program a potentially Pyrrhic victory. Among the attractions of vouchers, he argues, are that they will typically save taxpayers money and introduce competitive pressures that will stimulate public schools to improve.

But that won’t happen, he says, if public schools are insulated from financial losses when they lose students to private schools.

“How can you afford to waste money that way?” he asked. “Since the school system is being paid to give students away, there’s no competitive pressure on them.”

Still, Mr. Friedman predicted that the District of Columbia program would add to the momentum for more voucher initiatives. “I trust it will be copied all over the country,” he said. “The opponents are right to be concerned about it.”

And he said he had not lost hope that the kind of universal voucher program he proposed almost 50 years ago would eventually come to pass.

“Possibly not in my lifetime,” said the nonagenarian winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, “but I hope in yours.”

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Accountability Did Washington D.C.'s Education Overhaul Help Black Children? This Study Says Yes
Researchers said the district's "market-based" reforms accelerated achievement versus other districts and states.
5 min read
Accountability Opinion What Next-Gen Accountability Can Learn From No Child Left Behind
As we ponder what's next for accountability and assessment, we’d benefit from checking the rearview mirror more attentively and more often.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Accountability Opinion Let’s Make Transparency the Pandemic’s Educational Legacy
Transparency can strengthen school communities, allow parents to see what’s happening, and provide students more of the support they need.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Accountability The Feds Offered Waivers on ESSA Accountability. Here's Where States Stand on Getting Them
While they get less attention than testing waivers, flexibility related to low-performing schools is an important federal and state issue.
5 min read
Image of a student taking a test with a mask on.
Rich Vintage/E+