WASHINGTON -- The school choice movement -- which germinated 50 years ago in free-market economist Milton Friedman's fertile mind -- recently counted its largest victory. The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the state's school voucher program. Under it, more than half a million low- and middle-income Hoosier students -- and about 62 percent of all families -- are eligible for state aid to help pay for a private or religious school.
This is what school choice has traditionally lacked: scale.
Since the first experiment in Milwaukee in 1990, voucher programs have been resisted by a powerful combination of interests. Teachers' unions have fought what they regard as a diversion of resources from public education -- while conveniently undermining a source of professional competition and accountability. But this opposition has been empowered by the skepticism of many suburban parents, who have paid a premium to buy homes in better school districts. When educational outcomes become less connected to the ZIP code you inhabit, some property values will decline.
It is a paradox Friedman would have appreciated. Vouchers have been blocked by unions resisting market forces and by suburban parents reflecting those forces. Not surprisingly, support for school choice programs is often twice as high among urban residents as it is among suburban ones.
This has generally relegated vouchers to the margins of education reform, in underfunded micro-programs aimed at the very poorest. The District of Columbia's scholarship program, for example, capped participants at 3 percent of the student population while increasing funding for public education. The political price of providing vouchers to disadvantaged children has often been to shield public schools from even the mildest competitive pressure.
A limited choice program is not the same thing as a healthy, responsive educational market. "A rule-laden, risk-averse sector," argues Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, "dominated by entrenched bureaucracies, industrial-style collective-bargaining agreements and hoary colleges of education will not casually remake itself just because students have the right to switch schools."