By Peg Tyre
In a 1955 essay, free market visionary Milton Friedman proposed a revolutionary model of education. Rather than seeing public schools as a rich local resource and driver of social mobility, he suggested they were a reflection of government overreach. Because a stable and democratic society depends on an educated electorate, he reasoned, the government should pay for children to go to school. But that did not mean the government should run schools. Instead, Friedman said, it ought to require a minimum level of education. And to finance that education, it should give parents “vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on ‘approved’ educational services.” Breaking the government monopoly on education, he argued, would allow “consumers” (parents) to support the best “product”—that is, to enroll their kids in the most effective and highest-performing institutions. Mediocre public schools, subjected to market forces, would improve or perish.
The idea captured the imagination of elected officials and policy makers all over the world. Now President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is preparing to give the scheme its first national rollout in the U.S. She has made voucher programs the centerpiece of her efforts to enhance educational outcomes for students, saying they offer parents freedom to select institutions outside their designated school zone. “The secretary believes that when we put the focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries, we will be on the right path to ensuring every child has access to the education that fits their unique needs,” says U.S. Department of Education spokesperson Elizabeth Hill.
Because the Trump administration has championed vouchers as an innovative way to improve education in the U.S., Scientific American examined the scientific research on voucher programs to find out what the evidence says about Friedman’s idea. To be sure, educational outcomes are a devilishly difficult thing to measure with rigor. But by and large, studies have found that vouchers have mixed to negative academic outcomes and, when adopted widely, can exacerbate income inequity. On the positive side, there is some evidence that students who use vouchers are more likely to graduate high school and to perceive their schools as safe.
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