Acton Commentary

School Choice Gains Traction


Political discourse and news media have been consumed of late by talk of debt, spending, and recession, but meanwhile the educational freedom movement has been making real progress. State legislatures across the country are giving a green light to vouchers and tax incentives that will in the future pay impressive dividends in the form of better educated students and more efficient schools.

A recent AP story summarizes the progress made in statehouses across the United States. The article counts 30 states that have witnessed the introduction of voucher bills. Additionally, 28 (there is overlap between the voucher states and the tax break states) have considered or are considering tax breaks for tuition to private schools. In six states, this reform legislation has already passed.

The most significant initiative is the Indiana voucher bill, which would provide a school voucher to any family of four earning less than $60,000 per year. I have long argued that tax incentives are preferable to vouchers, because they connect directly the buyers (parents) with the providers of the service (schools) without the often-intrusive mediation of government, but I favor any reform that helps to break the monopoly of government-run schooling—and vouchers do that.

The public school monopoly is harmful for the same reasons that other monopolies are. Where there is no competition, there is a tendency to tolerate waste, incompetence, and poor outcomes. The inherent human tendency toward self-interest works itself out in an institutional context, and the goals of self-preservation and self-enrichment take precedence over the achievement of excellence in creating goods or offering services.

The stakes here are high. The good being sold in education happens to be human development: the education and formation of children so as to prepare them to be morally upstanding and economically productive citizens. Some argue that this task is so important that it must be performed by government. In truth, it is too important to be left to government. Outstanding education should be innovative, cost-efficient, and respect parental values. These aims are best achieved in a competitive and pluralistic environment where a variety of schooling options are available to all. Instead, in many places in this country, what exists is a system of “free” but second-rate government schools for the masses along with first-rate private schools that are affordable only to the wealthy. Religious private schools, which historically have bridged the gap between these two options, are closing at a rapid rate as a vicious cycle of declining enrollment and rising tuition makes their finances untenable.

Thus the extension of school choice to a growing number of states is a welcome development. Unfortunately, it does not mean the promised land of educational freedom is right around the corner. In 2007, Utah’s lawmakers passed a comprehensive voucher bill, only to see it nullified by a general election referendum before it could be implemented. Similarly, the Indiana measure, under challenge by the customarily obstructive alliance of teacher unions and church-state separationists, is working its way through the courts (though it is in force, meanwhile). In at least four state legislatures, school choice bills have already been defeated this year.

But the sheer volume of school-funding reform activity suggests that momentum is in the right direction. Some results we may reasonably expect from an expansion of education freedom include: More parents who take interest in and responsibility for their children’s education, more responsive and cost-conscious educational professionals, and more children who know how to read and add. As we survey an otherwise gloomy landscape of high unemployment, exorbitant government spending, and international debt crises, the bright promise of school choice is a welcome sight.

Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and the author of Catholic Education and the Promise of School Choice.