Americans are free to choose where to live and work, what products to buy, and which services to use. But there is one important sphere in which Americans do not have freedom of choice—education, both primary and secondary. State and local governments have the power to force students into one-size-fits-all public schools, regardless of parental choice and individual student differences. 

This week, January 25 to 31, is National School Choice Week. The occasion is an opportunity to raise awareness that school choice works. Expanding school choice, primarily through educational vouchers and charter schools, consistently improves the quality of all schools, including public.

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In the American public education system, children’s educational prospects are determined by their families’ zip codes. This system reinforces a cycle of poverty as parents living in poor districts are left with no choice besides local public schools. By giving low-income families the option to send children to higher-quality schools, school choice extends to low-income families a choice that is already available to wealthy families.

One way to provide parents choices about where to educate their children is by expanding educational vouchers. 

The underlying concept of a voucher system is that per-pupil funding follows the student, not the school. Voucher systems give parents the freedom to send their children to any state-approved school, whether public, private, or charter. The better job schools do educating students, the more money they receive. If parents are unhappy with their child’s current school, they are free to move them to another—an option that is often not available in the current public school system.

Vouchers have been implemented in Louisiana, where children in failing schools receive tax dollars to attend a state-approved school of their choice. Positive results from increased school choice are especially impressive in New Orleans, where the high school graduation rate has increased to 78 percent, from 54 percent in 2004. Other voucher programs for students from low-income families or failing schools are seen in Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Vouchers have positive effects on the education system as a whole. The key to success in any market is adaptation and competition, and vouchers infuse both into public schools. Under a voucher system, schools have to compete against each other for students’ dollars, thereby enhancing performance at public and private schools.

School choice programs and education vouchers are also sound fiscal policy. For example, by increasing graduation rates and educational achievement, the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was found to produce benefits of $2.62 for every dollar spent. 

Critics of school choice programs often allege that many schools are failing because they are underfunded. But this argument is not supported by data. U.S. per-student spending on primary and secondary schools has risen by an inflation-adjusted 33 percent in the last two decades, and 239 percent over the last 50 years. Per-student spending now hovers around $13,000. Imagine the possible success if this money were provided directly to parents for education. Education vouchers would be at-worst budget neutral, and at-best a substantial money saver.

Another complaint about vouchers is that competition would lead to some schools closing and some teachers losing their jobs. This generates strong opposition from entrenched interests, including teachers unions. However, talented individuals with gifts for teaching would be in higher demand if schools began competing on value, which could attract more people to the occupation

Some critics of school choice argue that children who perform well under voucher or charter school programs do so mainly because their parents are motivated to care about their education.  However, a study led by Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby shows this is not true. Hoxby looked at two groups of New York City students, those who won the lottery for charter schools and those who did not. Both groups of students had equally motivated parents, but those students who were selected by the lottery outperformed those who were not.

Concerns that many parents are not capable of choosing the best schools for their children are overstated. In 2014, 70,700 applications were submitted for New York City charter schools, even though only 21,000 seats were available. These parents, similar to most others, put in extra effort for the 30 percent chance that their children could receive a better opportunity for future success. More than anyone else, and certainly more than government bureaucrats, parents want their children to have the best education possible.

School choice programs, especially educational vouchers, are the best of both worlds. Market competition forces schools to constantly work to improve, and government funding ensures all students have access to primary education. National School Choice Week serves as a reminder of the successes of school choice initiatives, and as a call to action to continue expanding that which is essential to escape poverty—a quality education.

Meyer is a fellow at Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. You can follow him on Twitter here.