American Education in 2030: Vouchers Thrive

Published December 30, 2011

Informed by evidence as of 2011, this essay speculates on the rise of vouchers through 2030 from the perspective of 2040. For this article, a voucher means a scholarship awarded directly to families to pay private school costs.

Because they know best and care most about their children, vouchers appropriately gave parents choice in education. Parents could choose their children’s schools just as they chose their names, food, doctors, and much else. No longer could government officials decide what was best for students.

Schools most appealing to parents thrived and multiplied; the least appealing shrank and closed. The voucher system put in place standards and accountability for both private schools and parents. Voters demanded that legislators remove dysfunctional programs and regulations unfairly advantaging some industries, firms, and public organizations over others.

The seemingly radical, vastly increased privatization fit traditional American ideals of freedom, individualism, and self-determination, harnessing Americans’ world-beating optimism and strengths in invention, entrepreneurship, and pragmatism. The private provision of schooling, as in other fields, produced much better achievement outcomes. Following stunning Asian examples of high achievement and fast economic growth, the American economy made commensurate economic strides.

Government-provided services and their agencies had been gigantically difficult to change constructively, efficiently, and peaceably. Dominated by special interests and subsidized to the point of monopoly, they lacked capitalism’s incentives to invent, improve, and compete to serve customers.

Voluminous evidence showed private organizations generally yield better results at lower costs. Privatizing government yielded better satisfaction from customers and employees. In the United States and other countries, studies of successful privatizations involved airlines, banks, bus service, debt collection, electric utilities, hospitals, insurance, railroads, savings and loans, utilities, and weather forecasting.

Americans Reassert Themselves
Public schools’ downfall accelerated in 2015 not only because of poor results and parent dissatisfaction but because they threatened America’s economy and society. Private and semiprivate schools predominated by 2030 because distinctively American traditions had reasserted themselves, including the exceptional American preference for individuals’ responsibility for their lives and prosperity.

Early one-room American schools run by nearby citizens befit the views of the American Founders and early immigrants who wanted freedom from centralized government control. Later immigrants came for the same reason. But beginning a century ago, control of schools became increasingly centralized and ruled by federal, state, and local officials often in conflict. In this complex and unaccountable system, powerful and sophisticated special interests, particularly public-sector unions, overpowered local citizens’ and parents’ interests and undermined student well-being.

Repeatedly failing public schools seldom closed. Similarly, multibillion-dollar federal school programs for poor, handicapped, and English-language learners continued largely unreformed for decades, though large-scale evaluations had demonstrated their failure.

Shift in Public Opinion
By 2015, citizens understood the public school crisis. National surveys showed they had astonishingly strong views about what to do, including demanding more accountability. Many thought students in repeatedly failing schools should be allowed to transfer; others saw a need for replacing faculty or closing such schools altogether.

Students also thought their schools lax. For example, a Public Agenda national survey of high school students showed three-fourths believed stiffer examinations and graduation requirements would make students study more.

Progress required substantial reforms, including innovative organizations geared to new technologies. By 2010, virtual schools served some 187,000 students in twenty-four schools, including 62,000 in the Utah Electronic High School and 54,000 in Florida’s Virtual School.

The most important evidence for K-12 privatization was that charter schools, private schools, and vouchers definitively promoted student achievement gains, cost efficiency, and parent satisfaction. Contrary to what some had feared or alleged, students in charter and private schools were no less “socialized” but rather more often participated in voluntary charitable activities such as tutoring younger and hospitalized children.

The potential of school choice and privatization had been underestimated, perhaps because the relatively small numbers of choice schools were insufficient to produce strong competitive effects on other schools.

School Choice Spreads Worldwide
Unlike the United States, several East Asian countries directly funded privately governed schools, without the administrative complications of charters and vouchers. South Korea’s for-profit tutoring firms used the nation’s Internet service—fastest in the world— and paid teachers for their individual performance, often sharing with them student tuition they generated. Could this happen in a Western country?

The Swedish government in 1993 required all local education authorities to directly fund privately run schools of choice at a per-student cost close to that of traditional public schools. New schools had to meet several basic requirements, including an open-admission policy which required schools to admit all applicants regardless of ability, ethnicity, or socioeconomic level.

New private schools grew in a broad cross-section of neighborhoods. Indicating bottled-up demand, the number of private schools rose fivefold. The new policy led to increased competitiveness, improved student achievement, and greater parental satisfaction.

It was ironic that, among Western countries, “socialist” Sweden rather than “capitalist” America successfully pioneered parental choice in education. But even in 2010 the United States had two huge advantages that would allow it to lead in K-12 education choice by 2030: the longstanding American preference for citizens’ self-determination over government control, and Americans’ spirit of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Herbert J. Walberg is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and chairs the boards of directors of the Beck Foundation and The Heartland Institute. Copyright by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Used with permission; all rights reserved.

Image by WoodleyWonderworks.