Last spring, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman reflected on the state of education reform. Ever the optimist, he expressed confidence that America was close to embracing his vision of widespread parental choice in education.
All that was needed, Friedman argued, was for just one state to implement universal school choice. Once that happened, other states and communities would rapidly follow suit.
Unfortunately, Friedman left us in November. But on Feb. 12, America took a giant step toward realizing the good doctor's dream Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signed into law the nation's first universal school voucher initiative.
This fall, Utah's 500,000 public school students will be eligible for vouchers worth $3,000 toward the cost of private schooling. By 2020, every child in the state will be eligible for the vouchers.
Utah gives other states and communities a working model of how to offer parents a real choice in how - and how well - their children are educated. If history is any guide, Utah's program will inspire similar programs across the country, just as Friedman envisioned.
Consider an early precursor: the Milwaukee experiment. In 1990, Wisconsin lawmakers created a pioneering school voucher program for low-income students in Milwaukee. Initially, only 337 children participated.
Today, more than 17,000 children use vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee. The program has proved popular with families and effective in improving learning opportunities for participating children.
The Milwaukee success has inspired policymakers elsewhere 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.
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 Arizonans use the credit to contribute toward tuition scholarships for more than 22,000 students.
Legislators in other states followed suit. In 2001, Pennsylvania and Florida adopted tax credit programs to encourage donations for school choice scholarships. Today, those programs together provide 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 wildly popular among participating families.
Following Florida's success, lawmakers in Ohio and Utah implemented similar scholarship programs for children with special needs, and dozens of other states are considering the approach.
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. The program is slated to provide about 500 scholarships this fall. Already lawmakers in Maryland and Tennessee have proposed similar initiatives.
State momentum on school choice has far outstripped action at the federal level. Though the Bush administration advocated a broad voucher proposal in early 2001, it largely abandoned the effort during negotiations over its signature No Child Left Behind Act.
The feds have had limited success in implementing NCLB's remaining choice elements: choice among public schools and after-school tutoring programs.
Soon Congress will resume debating reforms and funding for No Child Left Behind. But federal lawmakers would do well to consider that they might best advance parental choice in education by ceding more policymaking authority back to the state and local level. That's where the authority has rested traditionally. And that's where the action is, when it comes to school choice.
Since states and localities control the vast majority of educational funds, they are better positioned to create voucher programs on the scale that would create systemic change and make public education more accountable to parents and taxpayers.
The brief history of parental choice in education shows it expands more effectively through local and state policy initiatives than through the federal government. Now that Utah has embraced universal vouchers, the future is even brighter.
Dan Lips is education analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the DC Examiner