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The History of School Choice

• Tim Abram

National School Choice Week (NSCW) provides an opportunity for students, parents, teachers, advocates and policymakers to highlight the existing array of K-12 school options and the benefits of school choice. Though NSCW started in 2011, the idea of “school choice” long predates the week that now celebrates it. As stakeholders across the nation reflect on the current status of school choice, it is equally important to consider the history of school choice.

Brown v. Board

The historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 denotes the start of the modern school choice movement. In response to Brown, some Southern states enacted “freedom of choice” legislation designed to allow parents to choose where they sent their children. In reality, these laws were implemented to “to keep black and white families in the same schools they attended before Brown,” writes Yale Law professor James Forman, Jr. Furthermore, some states even provided tuition grants to white students (though funded by all citizens) to attend private schools to avoid integration. Although school choice has evolved from its troubling origins, it is crucial to elevate this aspect of the history of the school choice movement as it may be the source of skepticism among those who may not see the merits of school choice.

Milton Friedman

Economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education” serves as the intellectual birthplace of the school choice movement. In this influential essay, Friedman argued for “giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on ‘approved’ educational services.” Although Friedman’s ideas did not immediately gain traction, they would later permeate much of the education reform debate of the 1980s and indirectly inform the creation of the nation’s first school voucher program designed for low-income families in the Milwaukee School District in 1989.

Private School Choice

In his memoir No Struggle, No Progress¸ Dr. Howard Fuller, former Superintendent of the Milwaukee School District, noted that he “knew nothing about the history of vouchers and had never even heard of Milton Friedman” when he and others began searching for a “radical” idea that would give low-income families an alternative to the public schools that had been failing to properly educate students. The radical idea that came from their deliberations was a publicly funded voucher that allowed students to attend private schools. It is important to note that the same public policy (publicly funded vouchers) that was once leveraged to fight integration and subsequently left poor African Americans in underfunded, underperforming schools was now being championed to expand educational opportunities for low-income communities, many of whom were African American.

Charter Schools

The history of school choice would be incomplete without mentioning the advent and expansion of charter schools. Educator Ray Budde introduced the notion of “chartering schools” in the late 1980s. Budde envisioned a restructuring of school districts that afforded both the school district and teachers more autonomy over their decision making as it pertained to educating children. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter, and dozens of states have followed suit since then. According to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are now 7,000 charter schools nationwide serving 3.2 million students.

Looking Forward

As we celebrate the National School Choice Week, it is vital that we glean insight from the rich history of school choice to continue creating new and strengthen existing educational opportunities for families.

About the author

Tim Abram

Tim Abram serves as ExcelinEd’s Associate Policy Director of Educational Opportunity. Prior to joining ExcelinEd, Tim worked as a public policy manager for VIPKid, a leading ed-tech company. Additionally, Tim has been an education policy fellow for Senator Chris Murphy and a public policy fellow for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Tim also taught United States history in the Mississippi Delta as a Teach For America corps member. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy Leadership from the University of Mississippi and a Masters of Education specializing in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.