by Kerry McDonald
“Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman stated in 2003. “We are far from that ultimate result. If we had that, a system of free choice, we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education.”
Last week, Arizona lawmakers moved us much closer to that ultimate result. Legislators in that state, which already had some of the most robust school choice policies in the US, passed the country’s first universal education savings account bill, extending education choice to all K-12 students.
The education savings accounts, or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts as they are known in Arizona, had previously been available to certain Arizona students who met specific criteria, including special needs students and children in active-duty military families. This new bill, which the Governor Doug Ducey is expected to sign, extends education choice to all school-age children throughout Arizona.
Every family will now have access to 90 percent of the state-allocated per pupil education dollars, or about $7,000 per student, to use toward approved education-related resources, including private school tuition, tutors, curriculum materials, online learning programs, and more.
“Arizona is now the gold standard for school choice,” Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, told me this week. “Every other state should follow Arizona’s lead and fund students instead of systems. Education funding is meant for educating children, not for protecting a particular institution. School choice is the only way to truly secure parental rights in education.”
Several states have introduced or expanded school choice policies over the past couple of years, enabling taxpayer funding of education to go directly to students rather than bureaucratic school systems. In this week’s LiberatED podcast episode, I spoke with one education entrepreneur, Michelle McCartney, whose homeschool resource center is an approved vendor for New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts, an education savings account program for income-eligible students that was implemented last year.
While McCartney sees a fully private, free market in education as the ideal circumstance, she recognizes that education choice policies are an important first step toward expanding education options for more families, and reducing government involvement in the education sector.
“If it was up to me we wouldn’t pay any money to the government and school would be entirely privatized,” said McCartney. “That’s how I believe it should be, but it’s not. So I think we can all sit here and have discussions about what would be the ideal circumstance, but I think sometimes we’ve got to roll with what we have, and if we can get any of that money back to the families I think that’s an important first step.”
Indeed, Milton Friedman also saw school choice policies such as vouchers as a first step in education reform, not a final one. Friedman popularized the idea of school choice policies, specifically universal school vouchers, in his 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education,” and elaborated on his views over the following decades up until his death in 2006 at the age of 94.
Friedman and his economist wife Rose wrote in their influential book, Free To Choose: “We regard the voucher plan as a partial solution because it affects neither the financing of schooling nor the compulsory attendance laws. We favor going much farther.”
While Arizona’s new legislation now makes it the forerunner in education choice policies across the country, West Virginia is close behind and begins to address compulsory attendance. Lawmakers there recently passed legislation that loosens state compulsory school attendance laws for participants in learning pods and microschools, two emerging, decentralized K-12 learning models that are gaining popularity across the country. West Virginia also passed an education savings account program last year, known as the Hope Scholarship, that extends education choice to nearly all K-12 students.
The education disruption over the past two years has re-energized parents and taxpayers alike. They are demanding more options beyond an assigned district school, embracing innovative learning models, and loosening the government grip on education. As Friedman envisioned, a choice-based system of education weakens the government monopoly on schooling and sparks innovation and competition to ultimately “change the character of education.”
We are seeing that change occur right before our eyes.
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Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly newsletter on parenting and education here.