Surprise! Freedom in Education is Good, Too

Published November 1, 2000

States that provide their citizens with a wide range of alternatives for the schooling of their children also are places where students achieve high scores on national tests, according to a new study from the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research.

The study–the first of its kind to rank states on freedom in education–suggests that expanding education freedom offers policymakers a cost-effective strategy for improving student achievement. It also suggests that critics of school choice are mistaken when they say only savvy parents would benefit if all families were allowed to decide where their children attend school.

“Simply providing families with additional options in the education of their children has a larger independent effect on student achievement than increasing education spending or reducing class size,” said study author Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute. “Education freedom is not only a good in and of itself, but it also appears to help students learn.”

States may enhance or inhibit education freedom in many ways, including providing for charter schools, not over-regulating charter schools, making vouchers available to parents, only lightly regulating home schooling, providing a choice of public schools within the district, and allowing parents to choose public schools for their children in other districts without having to pay tuition. Greene’s Index takes all of these components of education freedom into account and provides a composite measure for each state.

Arizona is the top state for education freedom–not altogether surprising since it leads the charter school movement and has an innovative tax credit program for private school scholarships. At the other end of the spectrum is Hawaii. Hawaii has just one school district for the whole state, it has no charter schools, and it imposes burdensome regulations on parents who want to homeschool their children.

Minnesota and Wisconsin, both of which support parental choice of private schools through tax credits or vouchers, are ranked second and third, respectively. Fourth and fifth are New Jersey and Oregon, both friendly to homeschoolers. The next five are Texas, Delaware, Colorado, Maine, and Connecticut.

The bottom ten states in education freedom, in descending order, are: Georgia, Alaska, South Carolina, Virginia, Rhode Island, Maryland, Kentucky, Nevada, West Virginia, and Hawaii.

Why are states so different in the amount of freedom they offer to citizens in the education of their children? Because–despite the increased federalization of public education since passage of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act–K-12 education remains a state and local function. States are free to develop different approaches to address the same public policy issue. This freedom to experiment is what prompted former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to call the states “laboratories of democracy.”

The differences in education freedom among states “are determined by policymakers, by election returns, by legislative decisions, referenda, and citizen action,” noted Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn Jr. in the study’s foreword.

Citizens of some states enjoy far greater education freedom than do citizens of others because their states have embraced different policies and programs. These policies were made by legislators, and they can be changed by legislators.

Greene notes that increasing education freedom should be an attractive strategy for policymakers, since the magnitude of the benefit for student learning is comparable to the benefit of significantly increasing median household income.

“It is far easier for state policymakers to expand education freedom than it is for them to increase median household income by several thousand dollars,” notes Greene.

Finn notes the study has important implications for federal policymakers, too. Since the Education Freedom Index shows that states do vary immensely in the way they handle education matters, these differences should be recognized in how federal education dollars are distributed.

As an example, Finn points to the “Straight A’s” bill, designed to give participating states wide latitude to use their federal education dollars as they see fit, so long as they boost academic achievement in return. That proposal would likely yield different practices in different states, depending upon each state’s values and priorities.

“We should be keen to know which practices yield the best results,” said Finn, voicing hope that the Education Freedom Index would embolden Congress and the White House to let 50 different states begin this important experiment in 50 different “laboratories of democracy.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.