The Public Interest

Power to the parents?—the story of education vouchers

David K. Cohen & Eleanor Farrar

Summer 1977

EDUCATION vouchers were the enfant terrible of recent school reforms. Yet the idea seemed appealingly innocent: Instead of giving money to public schools and thus requiring either mandatory attendance or additional outlays for private schools, vouchers would directly aid families so that they could enroll their children in schools of their own choice. The idea of vouchers gained the attention of many reformers in the 1960’s because it promised to solve so many educational problems. Christopher Jeneks and other radical critics thought vouchers would improve ghetto education by offering parents and teachers alternatives to the failing public schools. The countrys impatient youth liked the idea because it would enable more people to afford their “free” schools. Some Catholics thought vouchers might boost enrollments in parochial schools, which were sagging under the pressure of rising costs and shifting values. And Milton Friedman, searching everywhere for some vestige of capitalism in mid-century America, discerned a market mechanism in parent choice and promptly pronounced vouchers the only hope for educational efficiency.

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