The idea of funding students to pay for their education rather than schools/institutions which thus become relatively immune to the need to be responsive to any one or group or to be held accountable for failure to satisfactorily educate students entrusted to their care – an all too common occurrence in our own day – was first proposed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Little happened until Vermont and the Netherlands introduced the first operational examples in the 19th century.
Progress was slow, and there was little advance of the idea until the 1950s, when economist Milton Friedman proposed utilizing vouchers to permit public funds to be used but with the education decisions to be made by parents/students. Progress has been slow but steady over the past half-century with increased momentum.
Much of this is to be expected given the natural tendency of any new idea to face resistance, especially one that challenges an institution involving a half-trillion dollars annually, 100,000 or more schools, 50 million students, plus millions of professional and support staff just in the United States. Of particular importance has been the consistent opposition of the teachers unions with their millions of members and some 1.5 billion dollars in annual dues, and the subservience of Democrats, especially national leaders, to the power of the unions rather than the interests of the students and the general public.
A recent prime example of this was a decision of the national Democratic administration and Congress to discontinue a very successful student choice program in Washington, D.C. which has helped thousands of students in recent years and is strongly supported locally. So much for their claim to support that which works.
On the plus side for school reformers has been the gradual increase in their ranks, particularly in the role of local Democratic leaders – local mayors, council members, and others, who have been willing to go where their state and national colleagues have feared to tread. Specifically, these numbers have increasingly included minority officials who have come to realize their constituents are those being hurt the most by failing schools which, in some instances, see more of their students drop out than graduate.
Similarly, whereas Friedman was one of the rare school reformers in the 1950s, today there are innumerable think tanks, foundations – not least of all the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis to carry on with their work reforming education – and political action committees.
A quantum leap forward has just occurred in Pennsylvania, where there is a gubernatorial race. In 1994 Tom Ridge was the first candidate to openly and actively endorsed school vouchers. He won and almost succeeded in this goal, getting enabling legislation through the Senate but failing in the House by only a few votes. He did succeed in creating an Educational Improvement Tax Credit, EITC, in 2000 which has benefited thousands of students to date and serves as a national model.
This year for the first time Pennsylvania has both a Democrat and a Republican gubernatorial candidate who favors school choice
The Democratic candidate, black State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, has long actively advocated school choice, as well as charter schools (he is the founder and president of Philadelphia’s Hardy Williams Charter School, named for his father). And, during this time, he has regularly been elected and re-elected. Although a late entrant for governor, his timing is impeccable. Recently there have been established several well-funded school choice advocacy groups.
According to the April 8, Philadelphia Inquirer, Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City PAC created in 2007 has given Williams $750,000. Another, the Make a Difference PAC, has chipped in with $500,000, a third, Students First, donated $250,000 as has a fourth (Pennsylvania has no limit on how much a person or PAC can donate to a campaign but a spokesman for one group has said they do no business with the state.)
This doesn’t assure victory for Williams but, at the very least it tends to level the financial playing field and should lead to considerable discussion of education reforms in general and school choice in particular.
As the saying goes, stay tuned.