(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
The United States began as an experiment in freedom, but has at times struggled with intolerance. America’s culture wars surrounding the assimilation of Catholic immigrants represented just such a struggle in the 19th and early 20th Century. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan successfully abolished private schools in Oregon. The KKK, you see, wanted to standardize Oregon Catholics into “real Americans.” If that thought frightens you, and it should, read on. It’s not enough to reject having the KKK standardize children, we need to embrace a customized education for all children.
The KKK aimed to do this in Oregon with a public school curriculum of which they approved and by banning private school attendance. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this incredibly illiberal measure in 1925. Today we should not only reject discrimination in schooling, but more fundamentally the notion that one size fits all. Americans can embrace customized education for all children and improve our 19th Century factory-like model of public schooling. We can do this by directly funding students through education savings accounts controlled by parents.
Looking past the ugly religious discriminatory intent of the attempt to ban private schools, this effort reflected a broader problem: an intolerant belief in a “one true way” to educate children. The Klan is not alone in having sought to control schools for their own purposes. Today we see groups on both the left and the right engaged in a never-ending battle over school curriculum. From Creationism to environmentalism to “Heather Has Two Mommies,” the struggles never cease. Worse still, American public schools fail to educate far too many of our students to an internationally competitive level.
Milton Friedman proposed a solution to these problems in the 1950s: separating the school finance from the operation of schools. This would allow parents far greater freedom to choose the sort of education they want, and reflects a liberal “to each their own” system. Over the years, advocates of greater parental choice have carried Friedman’s concept forward in the form of school vouchers and tuition tax credits. Vouchers are essentially state funded coupons that parents can redeem at public or private schools. Tax credits provide indirect aid for parents bearing the expense of a private education in addition to paying their public school taxes. The first modern voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1990, and over 26 voucher and tax-credit programs operate around the country.
Empirical research confirms significant benefits to parental choice, including Friedman’s central claim that it can serve as a catalyst for public school improvement. The need for improvement could not be clearer. Although America has a large number of excellent public schools, the recent PISA exam found that Hispanic and Black American 15 year olds score little better in literacy than their peers in Mexico. Mexico spends a mere quarter per pupil of the American average, and has substantially lower average family incomes. Those receiving the least from the status-quo have the most to gain from reform.
Last week, Nick Dranias and I released a study for the Goldwater Institute proposing public donations to education savings accounts as a strategy for improving education outcomes. Parental choice supporters in multiple states have proposed public contributions to education savings accounts. Education saving accounts can serve as a new and more powerful method for expanding parental freedom and improving public schools. Parents should have full control over the education of their children, down to the penny, and multiple options in seeking the best possible education for their child.
ESA contributions represent a substantial improvement over school vouchers as a parental choice mechanism. Rather than simply choosing between schools, parents should be free to choose from a growing array of education services from a variety of providers. Today, students take classes online, can seek private tutoring, or enroll in community colleges or even universities for coursework.
Accounts for education and health care serve as important precedents upon which to build. Lawmakers must construct strong systems of state financial oversight and provide for the auditing of accounts. Near bankrupt states can save money by fashioning contractual agreements with parents to provide greater flexibility in return for smaller overall per pupil subsidies.
With control over funding, parents could purchase full enrollment at public or private schools. Alternatively, our parents might choose to have their child attend classes at a variety of providers, public, private or virtual. Allowing parents to save funds for later college and university expenses would provide a powerful incentive to consider cost-effectiveness from all types of providers, whether public or private.
Contrary to the demonstrably mistaken fears echoing through the parental choice debate, our existing public schools would grow stronger as a result. Public schools will always be the bedrock of our education system, but might evolve to resemble the course-by-course offerings of our universities, especially at the high-school level.
American parents deserve their own experiment in freedom. The question is not whether we should have public schools, but rather who should be in charge of them, and how many other options should our system provide. I believe the answers to these two questions are “parents” and “as many as possible.” Students all have unique needs and aspirations they are not widgets to be mass-produced. The time has come to let go of our attempts to standardize the educations of children, and instead give parents the liberty to customize them.