Federalism: The Path to School Choice

At a conference last spring, Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman reflected on the state of education reform and the movement to implement widespread school choice. Ever the optimist, Dr. Friedman expressed confidence that America was close to embracing his vision of widespread parental choice in education. What was needed, Dr. Friedman argued, was for one state to implement universal school choice. Once that happened, other states and communities would begin to follow suit.

Unfortunately, Milton Friedman left us in November — only a month before that critical step toward his vision was realized. On Monday, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman signed into law the nation’s first universal school voucher initiative. This fall, 500,000 children in Utah’s public schools will be eligible to use a school voucher to help pay for private schooling. By 2020, every child in the state will be eligible to receive vouchers. (For more information, see Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg, “Utah’s Revolutionary New School Voucher Program,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1362, February 16, 2007.)

By implementing this path toward universal vouchers, Utah will provide other states and communities with a model of widespread parental choice in education. If history is any guide, Utah’s program will inspire lawmakers across the country to develop and implement similar plans, as Dr. Friedman envisioned.

In 1990, Wisconsin lawmakers created a pioneering school voucher program for low-income students in Milwaukee. Back then, only 337 children participated. Today, more than 17,000 children are using vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee. The program has proven popular with families and effective in improving learning opportunities for participating children.

Thanks to this success, the Milwaukee program has inspired policymakers in other states to create similar programs. In 1996, Ohio legislators created a school voucher program for Cleveland. More recently, Florida lawmakers created a statewide school voucher program for children in low-performing public schools, and Congress created a school voucher program for disadvantaged kids in Washington, D.C.

The adoption of education tax credits followed a similar path. In 1997, Arizona created a new income tax credit to encourage individuals to make donations for private school scholarships. Today, more than 70,000 people are making contributions that are funding tuition scholarships for more than 22,000 students.

Legislators in other states followed suit. In 2001, Pennsylvania and Florida implemented similar tax credit programs to encourage donations to fund school choice scholarships. Today, those programs together are providing scholarships to more than 44,000 students.

States have also pioneered the use of school vouchers to help at-risk children. In 1999, Florida created the first school voucher program for special-education students. Today, that program offers school choice to all special-needs students in Florida and is currently helping more than 17,000 children. The program has proven popular among participating families. Following Florida’s success, lawmakers in Ohio and Utah have implemented similar scholarship programs for children with special needs, and dozens of other states have considered similar legislation.

Last year, Arizona created the first scholarship program for foster children, an at-risk group that is often poorly served by the traditional school system. That program is scheduled to begin providing scholarships to approximately 500 students this fall. Already lawmakers in Maryland and Tennessee have proposed similar initiatives.

Federal Policy Should Follow the Momentum

State momentum on school choice has far outstripped action at the federal level. While the Bush Administration sought to advance a broad voucher proposal in early 2001, that effort was quickly abandoned in the negotiations over No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The federal government has had limited success in implementing NCLB’s remaining choice elements: public school choice and after-school tutoring programs.

All this points toward an important lesson that conservatives and school choice supporters should consider as the reauthorization debate over No Child Left Behind approaches. Federal education policy can create the conditions most favorable to advancing parental choice in education nationwide by transferring greater policymaking authority back to the state and local level.

States and localities have control over the vast majority of educational funds, enough to create voucher programs on the scale that would create systemic change and make public education more accountable to parents and taxpayers. History has shown that parental choice in education expands more effectively through local and state policy decisions than through the federal government. Now that Utah has embraced universal vouchers, the future is even brighter.