Last week was National School Choice Week and there are milestones to celebrate
As we wrap up our National School Choice Week look at the history of school choice, I’m going to explore some notable milestones in the U.S. over the years. For more in‐depth coverage, be sure to check out our new School Choice Timeline.
When we talk about school choice, we generally mean a program where public funding follows students to nonpublic schools. This becomes particularly important after the mid‐1800s, when state governments began to mandate taxpayers fund and children attend specific schools established and run by local government entities. Prior to that, education was typically a private or local concern—the domain of parents or small communities.
The oldest school choice program in the U.S. is Vermont’s town tuitioning program. Vermont’s founding constitution, adopted in 1777, required the legislature to establish a school in each town. As the state grew and the population became more dispersed, some towns could not support a public school. In 1869, the legislature passed a law allowing students from a town without a public school to attend any public or private school in or outside of Vermont, with the sending town paying the receiving school’s tuition. Originally, parents could choose religious private schools, but that option was removed by the state’s supreme court in 1961. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Carson v. Makin overturned a similar ban on religious schools in Maine’s town tuitioning program. In response, the Vermont Secretary of Education notified superintendents that “School districts may not deny tuition payments to religious” schools that otherwise meet the criteria for the program.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, created in 1990, is the country’s first modern private school choice program. Right in line with Milton Friedman’s 1955 idea for a tuition voucher, the program offers private school vouchers to low‐ and middle‐income families who live in Milwaukee. In its first year, 341 students used vouchers to attend seven private schools in the city. This year, 129 schools in the metro Milwaukee area are participating in the program, enrolling nearly 29,000 students. The value of the voucher increases when state aid to school districts increases. Today there are 26 voucher programs running in 15 states plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.
Arizona introduced the Individual Income Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s first tax credit scholarship, in 1997. It provides tax credits to individuals who donate to school tuition organizations that provide scholarships for private school tuition. While the tax credits are worth 100% of the donation, they’re capped at $611 per donor. There is no cap on scholarship values, students can receive multiple scholarships, and every K–12 student in the state is eligible to participate in the program. There are now 26 tax credit scholarship programs in 21 states.
While I’ve long known that Milton Friedman is considered the father of school vouchers, I only recently learned he later suggested “partial vouchers”—which sound a lot like education savings accounts (ESAs). Here’s how he described them in a 2006 EducationNext interview:
Moreover, there’s no reason to expect that the future market will have the shape or form that our present market has. How do we know how education will develop? Why is it sensible for a child to get all his or her schooling in one brick building? Why not add partial vouchers? Why not let them spend part of a voucher for math in one place and English or science somewhere else? Why should schooling have to be in one building? Why can’t a student take some lessons at home, especially now, with the availability of the Internet? Right now, as a matter of fact, one of the biggest growth areas has been home schooling. There are more children being home schooled than there are in all of the voucherprograms combined.
Friedman’s words proved prophetic when Arizona created the nation’s first ESA in 2011: the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Originally limited to students with special needs, the program allows parents who opt out of public school to receive a portion of state education funding in an account that can be used for a variety of approved educational purchases—like private school tuition, tutoring, or education therapies.
Other states adopted similar ESAs that were restricted to various populations (students with special needs, military families, economically disadvantaged families, children assigned to low‐performing public schools, etc.). In 2021, West Virginia made a huge jump forward with Hope Scholarships, an ESA that’s open to every child in public schools (93% of kids in the state). Last year, Arizona re‐claimed the ESA crown by becoming the first state with universal eligibility. Already this year, Iowa has joined the universal ESA club and Utah is on the verge. Other states are poised to follow suit. After decades of baby steps, universal school choice is on the march.
Our coverage this week—Neal’s introductory post, my look at Milton Friedman, Neal’s exploration of religion and school choice, and my piece on school choice and the courts—has been designed to highlight Cato’s new School Choice Timeline. There are a lot of misconceptions about the origins and goals of school choice. We hope the timeline adds clarity to conversations around school choice so it can be debated on its merits rather than with false attacks about its origins.
Originally published by the Cato Institute. Republished with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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