Enlow: Friedman Economics and the Year of School Choice
In 1995, Milton Friedman wrote that we were on the verge of a breakthrough in school choice reforms. Robert Enlow writes that 2011 is finally the year.
By Robert Enlow
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 a “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 less 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 address.
Thanks to support from groups 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 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, Wisconsin. Ohio quadrupled 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.
- Tax Credits: Corporations or individuals may donate to scholarship-granting organizations to gain a credit on taxes due in their state. 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, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Iowa. 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 up to $5,000 of tuition per child off their state income taxes, 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 of any educational expenses off their taxes. North Carolina parents of special needs students will earn a tax credit up to $6,000 for educational expenses for their children. All this to encourage more educational options for families.
Remarkably in this year of school choice, even the education bureaucracy has started to drop its resistance or put its toe in the water – choosing in some states not to challenge 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 charter schools, tax credit or voucher programs. In Douglas County, Colorado, for example, the locally-elected school board enacted a voucher program offering 500 vouchers worth up to $4,575. 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 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.”
That wildfire just broke out in 2011.
Enlow is President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his wife Rose. Friedman’s 99th birthday is being celebrated worldwide on July 29th.
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