Free to Succeed: A Brief History of School Choice

Perhaps it’s the title, but at first glance, Milton Friedman’s 1955
essay, “The
Role of Government in Education
,” seems unassuming. To many Americans, the
role of government in education is self-evident and impregnable. So, given
public schools are run by the government, an essay on the government’s role in
education seems like it would be both obvious (and boring).  

In reality, Friedman’s argument was neither obvious nor boring. In “The Role of
Government in Education,” Friedman argued that basic free-market principles—such
as competition and consumer freedom—should be reintroduced into the education

Friedman’s argument was not necessarily new or radical. For the first eight decades after the American Revolution, parents were the primary drivers of what and how their children learned. According to Market Education, written by the late Andrew Coulson, this “unofficial school choice” later dissolved amidst burgeoning anti-Catholic immigrant sentiment and a massive push for mandatory, state-funded, public education.

By the time Friedman wrote “The Role of Government in Education,” state governments essentially had developed monopolies on education, with children assigned to public schools within the district boundaries where they lived. This iron triangle of public schooling—government administration, compulsion and financing of education—had weakened important market forces and limited parents’ power to control their children’s education. Private schools offered an alternative to public school system, but many low- and middle-income families could not afford to pay both the taxes that support public schools and the tuition required of private schools.  

So although the history of American education reflects aspects of
school choice, education freedom had nearly disappeared by 1955. Children attended
their neighborhood public schools even if those schools were a poor fit.

Friedman’s essay argued that parents, not the state, should makes the
decisions when it came to their children’s education. Instead of government
officials mandating students attend given schools, competition between schools
would encourage greater innovation, efficiency, and effectiveness. Parents,
untethered from arbitrary school district boundaries, then could vote with
their feet. As Friedman put it: “Parents could express their views about
schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending
them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible.”

Friedman’s essay also proposed a voucher program, where the state
would take the money that wouldhave been spent to educate students at
public schools and give it to parents to cover tuition at a private school of their
choice. Fundamentally, he argued to separate the financing of education from
the delivery of services.

Friedman’s ideas were first implemented in Wisconsin in 1989 when
state Assemblywoman Polly
Williams authored the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,
—the first modern-day
private school choice legislation. The bipartisan legislation enabled low-income
minority families to use vouchers to pay for tuition at the city’s private

Later, 18 states and the District of Columbia launched similar voucher programs. The same number of states now offer tax-credit scholarships, which enable individuals and businesses to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofits that fund private school scholarships.

In 2011—dubbed “the
year of school choice
” because 12 states passed legislation that either
created new school choice programs or expanded programs that already
existed—Arizona implemented the county’s first education savings account option.

Education savings accounts allow parents to use taxpayer funds to pay for
tuition, tutors, textbooks, and other education expenses. Friedman had
suggested this as well during a 2003 interviewin which he spoke of issuing “partial

Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina have since
followed Arizona’s lead and implemented their own Education Savings Account options.

Around the same time Milwaukee passed the Milwaukee Parental Choice
public charter schools
—another key player in the fight for school
choice—started to take off. Public charter schools operate with greater
autonomy and at less cost than their traditional public school counterparts. Because
they are independent from traditional public school curriculum requirements,
charter schools can tailor their environments and curricula to their students’

Despite these gains, pushback continues. Just last week, the U.S.
Supreme Court heard
a case
that dealt with tax-credit scholarship programs. The case’s ruling,
which is expected this summer, could shape the future of the school choice
discussion in the United States.

But Friedman’s legacy endures, and this year’s National School Choice
Week is a reminder that progress continues, but by no means is the fight for authentic
education freedom over yet.