Americans today face a barrage of academic studies, research reports, and opinion pieces which assert the United States is no longer the land of opportunity, and denies some of its citizens, principally low-income minorities, a fair shot at economic mobility. Almost unanimously, the political and academic elite among us claim the only solution to our economic inequality problem is more “top-down” government intervention in the form of more central planning. These so-called experts ignore the fact that, since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, we’ve unsuccessfully tried government intervention and central planning, especially in our K-12 education system, where the answer has always been “education reform,” i.e., more money funneled to a fossilized bureaucracy delivering a one-size fits-all service.
By putting our faith for too long in these elite “experts” who manage over $650 billion in annual K-12 spending, we’ve ignored the warnings of Milton Friedman in his seminal work, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. He wrote:
A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome-ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.… On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and equality…
Over 60 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said, in Brown v. Board of Education, that when the state provides a benefit such as public education, it must provide it to all citizens on equal terms. Unfortunately, in the more than six decades since the Court outlawed state-sanctioned segregation by race, our state and local governments now use state-sponsored geographic segregation to deny the poor and middle class the same benefits afforded to those who can purchase a house in the right zip code. We’ve gradually restricted the freedom of parental choice in the course of seeking the holy grail of equality. We’ve allowed the fewer than 100,000 school board members, superintendents, politicians and academics who make up the education establishment to impose monopoly-like control over our K-12 system, permitting them to micro-manage and regulate the minute details of a $650 billion enterprise serving 50 million students spread across the entire United States. By assigning students to schools based on their zip codes, local school boards provide school choice to a limited segment — only to those who can afford to buy a home in the right school district. The result has been predictable — abandonment of public education by middle and upper-income families, rising costs, declining performance, and a highly unproductive governing segment of society which for far too long operated under a command and control style of decision making. As Prof. Friedman predicted, we’ve achieved neither equality nor freedom.
However, help may be on the way in the form of a Nevada Supreme Court decision, which could serve as a blueprint for the entire country to return to Friedman’s principle of more freedom in education. This will, in turn, provide equal opportunity, and thus more equality. On September 29, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the basic structure of the state’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program. The ESA program was under a concerted attack by the ACLU, the teachers’ union, as well as the rest of the education blob, causing the Court to suspend funding until the General Assembly could identify a defect with the mechanism, but the Court did also note:
[W]e conclude that Article 11, Section 1 (of Nevada’s Constitution), does not limit the Legislature’s discretion to encourage other methods of education. Based upon that reasoning, the ESA program is not contrary to the Legislature’s duty… to provide for a uniform system of common schools. We also conclude that funds placed in education savings accounts under SB 302 belong to the parents and are not “public funds.”
Nevada’s political leaders deserve applause for their willingness to move quickly on such a substantial change. Most states study the issue of education reform for years, issue a report that few read, and pass small incremental steps. However, in less than a year, Nevada’s Governor Brian Sandoval and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly passed a universal ESA program, available to all of Nevada’s 500,000 students in grades K-12, and have now won a major victory before the Nevada Supreme Court, leaving only the need to tweak the funding mechanism in order to fully implement the program. Once implemented and funded, Nevada will become the first state to fully meet the requirements of Brown by severing the link between zip code and school assignment, thus providing all of its students the freedom, combined with the economic means, to make their own choices. Under Nevada’s plan, all students will be able to use their ESAs to attend any school, public, private or charter, anywhere in the state.
Imagine if the parents of all 50 million children in the other 49 states had the same freedom. What if we gave teachers and educators more freedom to form their own schools, freed from the sometimes illogical and stifling regulations imposed upon them by the federal, state and local bureaucracies? What if the entire K-12 system of education in the United States became as simple as the government giving every child an education savings account loaded onto a debit card and the freedom to use the card to pay for educational services offered by teachers and educators with no more regulation than publishing tuition prices and academic results online, every day, every month and every year?
Instead of fewer than 100,000 “experts” controlling how $682 billion is spent on K-12 education each year, we’d have 50 million consumers making their own choices, based on their own interests, desires and needs. Educators would act as true professionals, free to self-regulate and form schools as they saw fit. By giving all parents ESAs, as the Nevada Supreme Court found, those funds would then belong to the parents who would be free to make the best choice for each individual child. By putting control of the funds in the hands of the consumers, and taking it away from the providers (school boards), our political leaders would finally give all citizens, not just the wealthy, a fair shot at the American Dream. By making parents the owners of ESAs, as the Nevada Supreme Court just did, we will create a real free market for K-12 education. Parents will be free to choose how to spend the ESAs, and teachers will be free to offer their services at prices they set, not the prices of some central planning agency. Again, quoting Prof. Friedman:
…Adam Smith’s flash of genius was his recognition that the prices that emerged from voluntary transactions between buyers and sellers — for short, in a free market — could coordinate the activity of millions of people, each seeking his own interest, in such a way as to make everyone better off. It was a startling idea then, and it remains one today, that economic order can emerge as the unintended consequences of the actions of many people, each seeking his own interest…
The political leaders of Nevada should move quickly to properly fund their ESA program. The rest of the country should take heed, giving all parents the same educational freedom that is about to occur in Nevada, and thus leading America back to standing as the “the land of opportunity.”