In 1980, Milton Friedman wrote the book Free to Choose, a classic inquiry into the relationship between freedom and economics. It later became a PBS broadcast series hosted by Friedman himself, and is still receiving considerable attention over 40 years later.
In this show, I’m joined by Matt Beienburg to apply Friedman’s “free to choose” mantra to public education.
Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute, which was influential in persuading the Arizona legislature to universalize a school choice program that could become a model for the rest of the nation.
Here’s what you need to know:
What does the legislation change?
In most places in the U.S., citizens who wish to send their kids anywhere other than the public school in their ZIP code are out of luck. They have to pay twice: once in taxes, and once in tuition.
Beienburg points out that Arizona had been a leader in educational freedom before the recent change in their law, allowing students to attend schools outside of their districts:
“[Arizona] recognizes that a student's zip code should not be the deciding factor of their educational opportunity.” [quotes are Matt Beienburg]
Arizona also allows independently-run public charter schools, which are not influenced by teachers’ unions in the same way as regular public schools.
Finally, Arizona pioneered a so-called Empowerment Scholarship Program, modeled on a proposal from the Goldwater Institute, which credits the money that would have been spent on a pupil in the public schools into a special savings account managed by the parents:
“They can now use that for any educational purpose for that child, whether that's a private school, home education, learning pods or micro schools, tutors or textbooks – basically any resource that you want to use, now you can do that for your students. It breaks this link that has forced students to have to go through the public school system.”
The parents are given control over roughly $7,000 of taxpayer money, which they can spend towards any approved educational activity. That figure is based on what the state currently spends per pupil enrolled in public schools. The unspent funds in the ESA roll over, all the way up through higher education. Essentially, Arizona is returning some of their taxpayers’ money, rather than directly funding private schools or charter schools:
“It's not simply taking public funds and directing it to a private entity. It's returning taxpayer public funds back to those taxpayers, who are then given the ability to use it and direct it as they think best for their children.”
What took so long for a state to implement school choice?
This is such sensible legislation, we might wonder why it took so long to enact it. Who was opposing it? What were the arguments against it? How did the Goldwater Institute overcome those obstacles?
“The opposition really comes down to two words: teachers’ unions.”
A more limited version of the ESA legislation had been on the books in Arizona, but it was only applicable to a few students. When it came to universalizing the policy, the opposition was strong:
“The unions do not want there to be another game in town. They have a monopoly over the system – they dominate school board elections, the policy, and the curriculum, and the sort of political weight that all that carries.”
By taking an incremental approach, however, the Goldwater Institute and other proponents of school choice were able to break down the resistance.
What pushed the legislation across the finish line?
Beienburg credits COVID-19 and the response by public schools to shut down:
“Parents were really beside themselves scrambling for options – many having to suddenly work from home – juggling childcare, education and their own work, and desperate for help. A lot of these families turned to things like micro-schools or pods, and recognized how necessary it is that you have choice.”
The unions may have overplayed their hand in trying to appeal to minorities through excessively progressive curricula.
“The National Education Association, which is the largest union in the country, has gone out of their way these last few years to pass resolutions on left-leaning political, progressive social causes. Yet when you actually provide an option to a lot of these disadvantaged, often minority families to give [their kids] equal footing and an opportunity to get a great education, you see these groups coming in and opposing [the unions].”
Polling data from a Harvard journal indicates that minority parents overwhelmingly support school choice.
What effect will this have on the quality of education?
The ESA legislation removes the power over educational content from the bureaucracy and grants it to the people, who will vote in the most effective way possible with their dollars. It’s a victory for small-d “democracy.”
When the law goes into effect in 90 days, Beienburg suspects we will see more competition among both public and private schools for the new dollars to be spent on education. “I think this ESA program opens the door to that sort of innovative model,” he says. The ability of parents to choose one option over another provides a greater degree of accountability due to the threat of those dollars going elsewhere.
“If parents are not satisfied with the education that's being offered to them, now they have a choice to go somewhere else.”
Schools peddling woke curriculums based around the 1619 Project and anti-racism agenda might think twice about the corrosive message they are sending, and which is being pushed heavily from Washington D.C.
If Arizona’s legislation catches on, it will empower state and local control over education – much as the founders envisioned – and disempower the federal educational bureaucracy.
Similarly, the legislation will likely change the content in textbooks, which have traded academic rigor for political activism. Increasingly, teachers have turned to online resources outside of textbooks for the most radical content, meaning that the indoctrination is devoid of any transparency or standards-testing by the agencies that regulate textbooks.
The Goldwater Institute has been pioneering academic transparency laws hand in hand with their school choice recommendations.
“As parents become more aware of what's being taught in their public schools, which they saw during COVID, they are increasingly dissatisfied with it,” Beienburg says.
Why should childless taxpayers pay for education?
Education is frequently considered a public good, given that we want an informed and educated electorate. Is this sufficient justification to tax those who never utilize the services offered by education?
Beienburg notes that most state constitutions spell out a role for the government in educating the population:
“The framers of the state constitutions have largely said, ‘We do you believe that this is a good that we want to make sure that our citizens are educated – not only in math and reading, but also just to be good citizens and to have a sense of American Constitutionalism.’”
He notes that taxpayers are already paying for public school tuition and that ESA legislation doesn’t change the amount being spent. It only enhances the quality of the education being offered for the same amount of money.
As a taxpayer would you rather your money be spent wisely, by schools competing for citizens’ tax dollars, or by the defunct monopoly that is the broken public school system?