School vouchers not only help the students who use them -- they also give public schools extra incentive to improve
Above: Students at a New Orleans charter school (Lee Celano/Reuters)
Several years ago, Paul was one of many children struggling through the Washington, D.C., public school system. In an interview as an 11-year-old, he looked back on his public school experience this way: "People screamed at the teacher, walked out of school during class, hurt me, and made fun of all my friends." His school experience changed dramatically after receiving a voucher through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, enacted in 2004. His family was able to send him to a parochial school in the District, setting him one step closer to fulfilling his dream of becoming an architect.
The idea that public education does not have to mean government education was a trailblazing one in the 1950s, when Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman first outlined the idea of school vouchers. To paraphrase Friedman, just because Americans have agreed to the public financing of education does not mean they believe government should dictate where a child goes to school.
It was academic idea at the time, but school choice has caught fire in recent years and is now taking hold in states and districts across the country. The thirst for more options accelerated the movement in 2011, when 12 states and the District of Columbia either expanded existing programs or created entirely new options. In Arizona, for instance, parents of special-education children can now deposit 90 percent of the money the public school system would have spent on their children into an education spending account. They can then use those funds to pay for private school tuition, online learning, or special education services, or even roll it into a college savings account.