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Grading States on Their Education Freedom
By Jay P. Greene and Chester E. Finn Jr.
Ever since Freedom House, in the darkest days of the Cold War, began its celebrated survey of political freedom around the planet, we've known that such comparisons are illuminating and helpful. That annual map spurred the residents of "more free" lands to cling to the liberty they had and invigorated those living in "less free" places to strive for more freedom. More recently, the Journal and the Heritage Foundation have teamed up to produce an index of international economic freedom.
But what of education, today's great domestic-policy frontier? Thanks to a report being released today by the Manhattan Institute we can now see how much freedom the 50 states are giving their residents when it comes to obtaining the kind of education they want for their children. With such knowledge comes empowerment -- and the possibility of change.
To begin with, the Education Freedom Index allows us to rank the top 10 (most free) states and the bottom 10 (least free) states in terms of education freedom. Arizona, which leads the charter-school movement, ranked first. Minnesota and Wisconsin, each of which assists private-school attendance through vouchers or tax credits, ranked second and third respectively. New Jersey and Oregon, which are relaxed about home-schooling, ranked fourth and fifth. And Texas, which is friendly to both charters and home-schoolers, ranked sixth. Delaware, Colorado, Maine and Connecticut round out the top 10.
Hawaii, which has just one public-school district, no charter schools and burdensome regulations for home-schoolers, ranked dead last. West Virginia, which has no charter schools, is next to last. Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Virginia, South Carolina, Alaska and Georgia fill out the bottom 10.
The index shows that the 50 states differ widely with respect to education freedom. Americans need to know this. Ours is an increasingly mobile society in which people make conscious decisions about where to live, where to locate their businesses, where to raise their children. Many factors influence those decisions. A family might opt for Hawaii rather than Minnesota because of climatic or demographic considerations. Hawaii is warmer, sunnier and ethnically more diverse than Minnesota. But that family might also want to know something about the two states' education arrangements, in particular about the right of parents to make school-related decisions. If parents value education freedom, they currently would be wiser to forget Waikiki and head for the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Some might be surprised by the size of these variations. After all, the Supreme Court has guaranteed all parents the right to educate their child as they think best, including using a private school or even doing the job themselves around the kitchen table. Yet we must never overlook the dominant role that states play in creating education freedom in today's world.
Primary and secondary school in America today is largely financed, operated and regulated by the state. The state sets the main rules, even for home-schoolers. The reason people in Arizona and Minnesota enjoy far greater education freedom than do citizens of Hawaii and West Virginia is because their states have embraced different policies.
Those policies might include publicly funded vouchers, but they need not. There are many other ways by which a state can increase education freedom. These include encouraging charter schools, deregulating home-schooling or making it easier for families to choose from among public schools or school districts.
Such policies are not immutable. A state can change. It can become freer with respect to education. It can also become less free. These decisions are made by policy makers, by election returns, by legislative decisions, referenda and citizen action.
Our other main finding is that these decisions are important. We looked to see whether education freedom is accompanied by student achievement. Unsurprisingly, it is. After controlling for demographics, spending and other input variables, we find that a state's higher ranking on the index is associated with stronger performance on both the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the SAT. Indeed, if a state increased its index score by one full point (on a scale with a range of about three points), we could expect its students' SAT scores to rise by 49 points and the percentage of pupils who are proficient on the NAEP reading and math tests to go up by 5.5%.
This means that if South Carolina (43rd on the index) were to offer as much education freedom as demographically similar Texas (sixth on the index), we would expect the Palmetto State's average SAT score to increase by about 40 points. This would happen without the state having to spend billions more on schooling, reduce class sizes or change its student population. South Carolina could improve education outcomes simply by offering more charter schools, deregulating home-schooling, and introducing interdistrict public-school choice.
Not everyone will welcome this index. Tyrants, oligarchs and despots didn't like the Freedom House map, either. It exposed their handiwork, judged its consequences and -- by showing that people in other lands enjoyed greater freedom -- proved that things didn't have to be the way they were. This became a powerful incentive for change and a source of encouragement to those wanting reform.
We are not saying that today's U.S. public-school establishment is despotic. But it's none too fond of education freedom, rebuffs change and avoids criticism. The education index will undoubtedly upset some of its crustier folks. So be it. That's the price of giving Americans clear evidence that education freedom is possible, that people living in some places have far more of it than people in others, that state policies underlie these differences, and that with greater freedom comes more learning.
©2000 The Wall Street Journal
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