Federalism: The Path to School Choice
By Dan Lips
At a conference last spring, Nobel Laureate economist Milton
Friedman reflected on the state of education reform and the
movement to implement widespread school choice. Ever the optimist,
Dr. Friedman expressed confidence that America was close to
embracing his vision of widespread parental choice in education.
What was needed, Dr. Friedman argued, was for one state to
implement universal school choice. Once that happened, other states
and communities would begin to follow suit.
Unfortunately, Milton Friedman left us in November--only a month
before that critical step toward his vision was realized. On
Monday, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman signed into law the nation's
first universal school voucher initiative. This fall, 500,000
children in Utah's public schools will be eligible to use a school
voucher to help pay for private schooling. By 2020, every child in
the state will be eligible to receive vouchers. (For more
information, see Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg, "Utah's
Revolutionary New School Voucher Program," Heritage Foundation
WebMemo No. 1362, February 16, 2007.)
By implementing this path toward universal vouchers, Utah will
provide other states and communities with a model of widespread
parental choice in education. If history is any guide, Utah's
program will inspire lawmakers across the country to develop and
implement similar plans, as Dr. Friedman envisioned.
In 1990, Wisconsin lawmakers created a pioneering school voucher
program for low-income students in Milwaukee. Back then, only 337
children participated. Today, more than 17,000 children are using
vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee. The program has
proven popular with families and effective in improving learning
opportunities for participating children.
Thanks to this success, the Milwaukee program has inspired
policymakers in other states 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
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 people are making contributions that are
funding tuition scholarships for more than 22,000 students.
Legislators in other states followed suit. In 2001, Pennsylvania
and Florida implemented similar tax credit programs to encourage
donations to fund school choice scholarships. Today, those programs
together are providing scholarships to more than 44,000
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
currently helping more than 17,000 children. The program has proven
popular among participating families. Following Florida's success,
lawmakers in Ohio and Utah have implemented similar scholarship
programs for children with special needs, and dozens of other
states have considered similar legislation.
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. That program is scheduled to begin
providing scholarships to approximately 500 students this fall.
Already lawmakers in Maryland and Tennessee have proposed similar
Federal Policy Should Follow the
State momentum on school choice has far outstripped action at
the federal level. While the Bush Administration sought to advance
a broad voucher proposal in early 2001, that effort was quickly
abandoned in the negotiations over No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The
federal government has had limited success in implementing NCLB's
remaining choice elements: public school choice and after-school
All this points toward an important lesson that conservatives
and school choice supporters should consider as the reauthorization
debate over No Child Left Behind approaches. Federal education
policy can create the conditions most favorable to advancing
parental choice in education nationwide by transferring greater
policymaking authority back to the state and local level.
States and localities have control over the vast majority of
educational funds, enough to create voucher programs on the scale
that would create systemic change and make public education more
accountable to parents and taxpayers. History has shown that
parental choice in education expands more effectively through local
and state policy decisions than through the federal government. Now
that Utah has embraced universal vouchers, the future is even
Dan Lips is an Education
Analyst at the Heritage Foundation www.Heritage.org.