Improving education is one of the most important issues in America. People from all backgrounds and all political persuasions are offering suggestions for reform. Many of these ideas rest on the premise that increasing a parent’s freedom to choose how her child is educated will increase the likelihood that that child will be well educated. Despite the prominence this premise enjoys in today’s debate, no one has yet attempted to measure how much educational freedom parents currently possess. Nor has there been any comprehensive attempt to test the truth of this premise, that more educational freedom leads to better educational outcomes.
The extent of educational freedom varies greatly within the United States. In some states, parents have a wide selection of charter schools from which to choose, while in other states there are none. In some states, parents have access to private school options via vouchers or tax subsidies, while in other states they do not. In some states, parents can home school their children with relatively few restrictions, while in others this option is heavily regulated. In some states, school districts are small enough that parents can easily move from one to another, while in other states school districts are as large as counties or even the entire state, making choosing a different district very difficult. In some states, parents can transfer their children to other public school districts without having to move, while in other states that option is unavailable or restricted. The more options that parents have regarding the schooling of their children, the more education freedom there is.
In this report, we estimate the extent and nature of education freedom in each state, using a new Education Freedom Index (EFI). The purpose of collecting evidence on the range of education options in each state and assembling them into EFI is three-fold. First, we want to show the remarkable differences in educational freedom among the states. Second, like the Economic Freedom Index and the Political Freedom Index after which EFI is modeled, we seek to make educational freedom a concept that becomes the subject of policy debate. Third, we test whether states that increase the amount of education freedom are also likely to experience an improvement in academic achievement. We find that students in states that have higher scores on EFI also have higher scores on standardized tests, even after controlling for other demographic and policy factors.