The education system wasn't working. Lisa Stevens and other local parents knew their children weren't receiving the tools they needed to succeed—so they decided to do something in their community of Greenville, South Carolina. Watch their inspiring story in this short video:
So what can you do? School choice doesn’t look the same for everyone—because learning doesn’t look the same for everyone. Innovative options abound, including charter schools, online learning, vouchers, homeschooling… and the list goes on.
In the exclusive chapter excerpt below, Jim DeMint gives insight into America’s education system, with real-life stories from Americans past and present along with the larger principles at stake.
America Needs Another Great Awakening
Although I’ve spent a portion of my life in the political arena, I’m convinced that the really decisive figures in history are the prophets and moral leaders, not the politicians, and the really decisive events are the religious revivals, such as America’s Great Awakenings, that seemingly come out of nowhere, help people regain their moral bearings, and reawaken a love of God, a love of country, and a love of our fellow man.
Historians tell us that between the early eighteenth century and the late nineteenth century, we had four Great Awakenings—which helped to give birth to such remarkable events as the American Revolution, the abolition movement, and the women’s rights movement.
In my opinion, nothing would improve our education system more than a fifth Great Awakening that would remoralize our culture and strengthen the fraying bonds between husbands and wives, parents and children, and teachers and students.
But children in underperforming schools can’t wait around for the next Great Awakening. America is unraveling before our eyes, and we need to do something about it now. Fortunately, there is a path forward for American education: school choice, the brainchild of one of the twentieth century’s greatest economists, Milton Friedman.
How Education Works—And Doesn’t Work
A child of immigrants, Friedman was born in Brooklyn in 1912 and became an economist and statistician who taught at the University of Chicago for more than thirty years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988.
Friedman wasn’t just super-smart; he was also one of freedom’s greatest champions. I’m proud to say that he and his wife, Rose, were recipients of The Heritage Foundation’s highest honor—the Clare Boothe Luce Award.
As President George W. Bush said in a White House ceremony honoring Friedman on his ninetieth birthday, “He has used a brilliant mind to advance a moral vision: the vision of a society where men and women are free, free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions.”
One of Friedman’s great passions was improving American education by giving parents the ability to choose their children’s schools. As he saw it, education was a commodity produced by our schools, and parents were consumers who paid for this commodity through taxes. In a free-market economy, consumers are free to choose from whom they wish to purchase their commodities. This forces businesses to compete for the consumer’s money, and the only way they can do so successfully is by constantly improving their products.
In the case of education, however, in most jurisdictions consumers are deprived of choice. Parents must send their children to the assigned public school unless they are able to afford private school tuition in addition to paying their taxes to support the public school.
Thus the school’s teachers and administrators are in the enviable position of monopolists. They don’t have to constantly improve their product, because their customers can’t take their business anywhere else. Or rather, they can’t go anywhere else if they happen to be of low- or middle-income. If they’re affluent, it’s a different story. The wealthy can afford to send their children to a private school of their choice, and that’s what many of them do.
This is how a great country like the United States begins to unravel. Its fortunate youngsters attend private schools where competition is the rule, and where teachers and administrators know that they have to provide their students with a first-rate education or the parents will simply take them to another school.
Less fortunate youngsters, however, are compelled to attend assigned government schools, where monopoly is the rule, and where teachers and administrators know that even if they fail to educate their students there are no consequences.
Free to Choose, Free to Succeed
We need an education system that lets all parents choose what they conclude is the best education they can afford for their children—and “affordable” should include choosing which school gets their tax dollars dedicated to education.
As Milton and Rose Friedman put it in their 1979 best seller, Free to Choose:
“The tragedy, and irony, is that a system dedicated to enabling all children to acquire a common language and the values of U.S. citizenship, to giving all children equal educational opportunity, should in practice exacerbate the stratification of society and provide highly unequal educational opportunity.”
To help solve this problem, the Friedmans came up with a policy idea that was as brilliant as it was bold. Let’s say it costs $12,000 to educate a seventh grader in the local public school. Give that seventh grader’s parents a choice, the Friedmans argued.
If they’re satisfied with the local school, they can continue to send their child there. But if they’re not satisfied, they’ll get a $12,000 scholarship, or “voucher,” which they can use to fund their child’s education at some other school, either public or private.
This voucher system, the Friedmans argued, will accomplish three things:
- It will take a child out of a bad school and empower his parents to choose a school that meets his particular learning needs.
- It will serve as a catalyst, forcing bad public schools to stop behaving like monopolies and start instituting much-needed reforms—performance pay for teachers, the elimination of “social promotion” of students who are not performing at grade level—that will improve educational outcomes for all their students.
- By giving poorer parents the power of choice that affluent parents already enjoy, it will promote greater equality of opportunity in the educational system.
Milton and Rose Friedman were so passionate about the need to improve our education system that they started the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Their foundation works with parents and communities around the nation, providing research to education advocates and promoting policies that protect school choice.
They are two of the heroes of the school choice movement.
From Falling in Love with America Again by Jim DeMint and The Heritage Foundation (Center Street, 2014). Excerpt from Chapter 9, “Education and Power of School Choice” (pp. 155-162).