You probably oppose school vouchers. On the other hand, you probably support school vouchers. These are the conflicting results of two different public opinion poll questions published in the past few weeks.

When the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan asked, "Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?" just over half the public said it was opposed. A poll conducted by the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation asked the same question and got the same answer.

But the Friedman Foundation also asked, "Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds?" Nearly two-thirds of the public favored the idea.

This volatility can also be seen in voters’ responses to school-voucher ballot questions. In 2000, opinion polls initially showed vouchers enjoying considerable public support in both Michigan and California. Both measures eventually went down to resounding defeats.

These dramatic swings in public support for school choice can be traced largely to a single factor: fear of the unknown.

Critics typically portray comprehensive school-choice programs as new and untested. They predict that such programs will fail to improve overall academic achievement, hurt poor families, tear apart the fabric of society and drive up the cost of education. They forecast doom, and the public retreats in fear.

The critics may believe these things to be true. They are not.

I have spent the past decade studying modern and historical education systems from all over the globe, and there are many examples of competitive education marketplaces that are driven successfully by the choices of parents.

The first education system in the world that expanded schooling beyond a tiny ruling elite was the free education market of ancient Athens. For the past 87 years, the Netherlands has enjoyed a school-voucher program that is available to children nationwide for either public or private education. In the 25 centuries that elapsed between these two civilizations, competition and parental choice have been tried repeatedly on scales both large and small. School choice has proven its worth many times over.

Today, about three-quarters of all Dutch children attend private schools with financial assistance from the government. Has this hurt the nation’s academic performance? Dutch high school seniors and recent graduates score first in the world in mathematics, second in science, and fourth in literacy. By comparison, American seniors and recent graduates score 19th in math, 16th in science, and 12th in literacy.

Have market forces hurt those Dutch students who have chosen to remain in public schools? No, they also do very well, performing just slightly below the level of students in Catholic schools and about even with students in Protestant schools. This should come as no surprise, since Dutch public school students can easily transfer to a private school if they become dissatisfied with the education they are receiving.

What about lower-income families? As it turns out, the average income of students in the country’s high-performing Catholic schools is below that in its public schools. As noted above, they do better academically nonetheless.

Has financial assistance for private-school tuition driven up the cost of education? The Dutch spend only $6,000 per pupil annually, compared to the nearly $10,000 spent in U.S. public schools. If every child in America were given a similar $6,000 school voucher, including the 10 percent of children currently enrolled in private schools, U.S. taxpayers would save $170 billion dollars a year. Even with a larger voucher, the savings would be substantial.

Has Dutch society been Balkanized into warring factions by unfettered parental choice? On the contrary, the Dutch voucher system was adopted specifically because it could defuse the terrible social conflict that had arisen over that country’s earlier public school monopoly. Everyone had wanted the schools to reflect their own views and to reject views they opposed, but given the many different groups comprising Dutch society, this led to a never-ending series of conflicts. (Sound familiar?) Educational choice successfully allowed Dutch families to obtain the sort of schooling they valued for their children without foisting their preferences on their neighbors. As a result, the earlier social tensions dissipated.

All this might sound like a sales pitch for introducing a Dutch-style voucher program. It isn’t. As it happens, research suggests that there are even better ways to reintroduce the benefits of parental choice and competition in education. Still, market-based approaches to education have an even longer history than state-run public schooling, and their record is extremely favorable so long as all families have access to the education marketplace.

Back in the 1990s, a Gallup Poll surveyed public opinion on school vouchers. The question they used explained how the system would work and mentioned that it already existed in other countries. Seventy percent of the general public and 76 percent of public-school parents said we should adopt such a system in America.[1]

As Americans learn more about school-choice programs and their record of success, and as they learn that the dire predictions of the critics are mistaken, they will not fear freedom in education. What they will fear is the status quo.

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Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.


[1] Gallup Organization, Inc. "The People's Poll on Schools and School Choice: A Gallup Survey," (Princeton, N.J.: 1992), p. 16.