Advancing the Cause of Educational Excellence

(Note: In December, Reason magazine’s editors asked several education writers to name the reforms necessary for improving American education and to identify the biggest obstacles to these reforms. One of these experts was Andrew J. Coulson, an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center. Following is Coulson’s response excerpted from the original article, Let a Thousand Choices Bloom.)

Most necessary reform: Choice is a necessary but insufficient condition for the creation of an education marketplace. The international and historical evidence suggests that effective education markets rely on the interaction of parental choice, direct parental payment, minimal regulation, vigorous competition, and the profit motive.

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To best serve the public’s needs and ideals, we must not only create an education market, we must ensure universal access to it. Some third-party financial assistance is therefore necessary, but it must be minimized because it impedes the market’s effectiveness by relieving parents of direct financial responsibility. It is also important to avoid compelling taxpayers to fund instruction that violates their convictions, in order to avoid social tensions over the content of schooling.

One policy most effectively advances these sometimes competing goals: a combined personal/donation tax credit. First, parents with school-aged children not enrolled in government schools should be eligible for credits of up to several thousand dollars, whether they are home-schooling, sending their children to private schools, or a combination of the two. This will allow them to spend more of their own money on their children’s education. Second, individuals and businesses that pay for the education of someone else’s school-aged child (whether directly or by donating to a scholarship fund) should be eligible for a credit.

In the case of scholarship donations, the credit should have either no cap or a very generous cap. In the case of direct payments, it should have the same cap as the personal-use credit claimable by parents. These credits should be non-refundable, which is to say they should never result in a net payment from state coffers to a taxpayer. They should be applicable to state and local income and property taxes. (The Constitution gives the federal government no role in education.)

Biggest obstacle: The greatest barrier to reform is that, when it comes to education, Americans have lost sight of the distinction between means and ends. Our state-run school system is no longer recognized as just one possible tool for pursuing universal education; it has come to be misperceived as an ultimate goal in and of itself. The term "public education" has come to refer to both the institution of public schooling and the ideals that the institution is meant to advance.

In George Orwell’s 1984, the state deliberately circumscribes its citizens’ vocabulary to impede dissenting thought. The conflation of educational means and ends in modern America produces a similar result. Many Americans can no longer even imagine a world in which education is delivered other than via a government monopoly. And criticisms of state schooling are often misconstrued or misrepresented as attacks on the idea of universal access to good schools.

Those with a vested interest in the status quo are so effective in scuttling reforms because they leverage this equivocation between means and ends. If it can be eradicated, or even mitigated, it will dramatically advance the cause of educational excellence.


Andrew J. Coulson is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich., and director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute. This article first appeared in Reasononline in December 2005.