Novel state experiments offer benefits to the rest of the country

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the notion of American states serving as “laboratories of democracy” in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, a 1932 Supreme Court decision.

“A single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” Brandeis wrote.

With regards to education freedom, Arizona and Florida have been collaborative laboratories.

Arizona lawmakers created the nation’s first scholarship tax credit program in 1997. This law allows individual taxpayers to donate to a non-profit scholarship granting program and receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against state income taxes for the donation. A few years later, Florida lawmakers created the nation’s largest scholarship tax credit program.

In 1999, Florida lawmakers passed the McKay Scholarship Program, the nation’s first private choice program for students with disabilities. A few years later, Arizona lawmakers attempted to emulate the McKay program. Arizona choice opponents killed this program in the Arizona court system, prompting Arizona choice supporters to develop the nation’s first account-based choice program, the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts withstood a court challenge, and a few years later Florida created what remains the nation’s largest account-based choice program.

Arizona and Florida’s innovators have learned and borrowed from each other. Thousands of unsung heroes from across the country also contributed to the development of this experiment, which remains ongoing. Teams in multiple states will work to optimize the use of accounts in a decentralized learning process. Oklahoma lawmakers have become the first state to adopt a large refundable tax credit for private education. This program likewise bears close examination over time; you never know what the next trend might go.

America has entered a difficult period with Baby Boomers exiting the labor market and a baby-bust diminished cohort of (mostly) their grandchildren entering the education system. Currently the baby bust is approaching the age of 16, so get used to seeing those “Help Wanted” signs. America’s two major political parties seem entirely incapable of reaching a consensus on reforming immigration. Something must give, but it remains unclear what it will be.

All of this is the background soundtrack to America’s public-school system as it grows increasingly dysfunctional and controversial. A complex web of local, state and federal authority attempting to govern a system of local monopolies marked by regulatory capture by unions and major contractors was also an experiment, but not a happy one. Our outcomes do not suggest that our experiment in bureaucracy represents the optimal method for educating students or in recruiting and fulfilling the aspirations of educators.

Our experiment in educational freedom must continue to conclude our experiment in educational frustration. Arizona and Florida have played crucial roles thus far, but new states have entered the collaboration. Young people are the future of any society, and they are getting to be in short supply. Some states are far more eager to give families a better return on their investment than others. America’s ongoing experiment with competitive federalism will soon merge with the experiment in educational freedom.


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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.