Rx for Better Education: More Choice

Published April 1, 2002

Lawmakers could improve education in their states very cost-effectively by changing state laws to expand school choice and strengthen accountability within existing school systems, suggests a new study from the Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

“Implementing tax credits for private school scholarships, adding new charter schools, adopting school report cards, sanctioning failure, and deregulating home-schooling can produce test score gains, in an entire state, that would otherwise require thousands of additional dollars in per-pupil spending,” concludes education researcher Jay P. Greene in his January 2002 report, “2001 Education Freedom Index.”

The Education Freedom Index is a ranking of the 50 states according to how freely parents can choose to educate their children. It puts a value on the bundle of educational options that each state offers through government subsidies and regulations. The Index comprehensively assesses four different ways in which a state can enhance educational freedom:

  • making it easy for parents to choose public schools or public school districts for their children;
  • providing for charter schools;
  • offering publicly funded vouchers; and
  • lightly regulating home schooling.

Some States More Free than Others

The availability of such educational options varies widely by state.

For example, while nearly a quarter of all public schools in Arizona are charter schools, more than a dozen states do not permit charter schools at all. While 13 states offer no assistance whatsoever to parents who choose private schools for their children, nine other states provide vouchers and tax credits to aid such families. Home schooling regulations also vary widely by state, as do publicly funded opportunities for parents to choose public schools other than the one to which their child is geographically assigned.

In states where families have more options in the education of their children, the average student tends to demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement. Greene also found that states with the most education freedom showed the largest test score gains during the 1990s, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test. Further, the gains for initially low-scoring states were related to the strength of a state’s accountability system, i.e., academic standards, sanctions, and report cards.

A “Curious” Restriction on Liberty

Greene’s findings have revolutionary implications for public policy.

While the government has a compelling public interest in seeing that all children are educated, the traditional means of achieving this has been to severely constrain parental choice in schooling by limiting public funding to government-owned and government-operated schools.

But if more freedom leads to better educational outcomes, then the public interest would be better served by increasing choice in education rather than restricting it.

“In the U.S., the government does not, in general, restrict how families raise their children–does not prescribe what clothes they should wear, what food they should eat, or what books they should read,” notes Greene. “Given that education is really just an extension of child-rearing, it is curious that liberty is granted in one arena while often restricted in the other.”

Moving Up … and Down

Greene’s latest report is the first update of the index since it was developed in September 2000. (See “Surprise! Freedom Is Good for Education, Too,” School Reform News, November 2000.) Only three states retained the same rank as the previous year: top-ranked Arizona, Maryland (46th), and Hawaii (50th).

The many shifts in rank came not because most states had major policy changes over the past year–in fact, most did not–but because just a few states enacted major changes in policy and experienced significant changes in their standings.

Utah, for example, dropped from 29th to 49th place, partly because of a low grade on its home schooling laws, but also because of the Beehive State’s failure to expand charter school options while other states were rapidly doing so. Iowa dropped 19 places, to 33rd, for similar reasons. South Dakota’s fall from 15th to 31st was largely because other states made more progress than the Mount Rushmore State in initiating or expanding charter school options and subsidies for private school choices.

The most dramatic change in rank was for Florida, which moved up from 35th to 4th because it initiated or expanded a series of educational options for parents during the past year. Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program provides especially needy families with private school vouchers; an extensive tax credit program provides scholarship funds to help children from low-income families attend private schools; and charter school options were expanded. The state’s A-Plus accountability program already offered vouchers to children attending chronically failing schools.

Sunshine State Governor Jeb Bush said he was “greatly encouraged” by the report, noting it makes clear “the state’s unprecedented attention to improving the education climate” of Florida.

According to the statistical analysis in the report, Florida’s policy changes should result in an additional 2 percent of the state’s students performing proficiently on the math NAEP test. The state would have to increase per-pupil spending by more than 20 percent to realize the same gain in test scores, according to the statistical model.

Oklahoma and Indiana both enacted policies that introduced charter schools, resulting in ranking increases of 21 and 12 places, respectively. Missouri and North Carolina both moved up 11 places after receiving better grades on their home schooling laws from the Home School Legal Defense Association. Pennsylvania moved up 11 places after adopting a new tax credit for private school scholarship funds.

For more information …

The January 20, 2002 report by Jay P. Greene, “2001 Education Freedom Index,” is available from the Manhattan Institute’s Web site at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/cr_24.htm. Greene’s first report is available at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_14.htm.