To Combat Youth Unemployment, Start With School Choice

Robert Enlow President and CEO, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
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Summer is the time when many students hit the pool or head to the beach for vacation. For others it is a transition from school into the working world.

Recent graduates or those needing money for college often enter the workforce in summer, seeking employment, a job or internship that could launch their career.

Six years after the Great Recession, the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics declared in June that the unemployment rate has dropped to 6.1 percent. But for those who recently left our education system, employment prospects are much dimmer.

Among 18 and 19 year olds, the unemployment rate is 19.3 percent. Among those 20 to 24, the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent. Obviously we aren’t giving students the skills they need to find jobs in a competitive marketplace.

While young people look for jobs, debates rage over Common Core standards and more testing. Teachers unions are battling for more influence. Some legislatures push to expand mandatory schooling into early years.

These deliberations over to improve education for America’s 50.1 million students sometimes appear the same as they were in 1950, 1980 or 2010, but the stakes today are different. The question is whether to expand the role of government in education and spend more money on a system that fails to produce better outcomes, or try something completely different.

If the purpose of education is to create well-educated citizens who are employable in today’s global marketplace, we are doing a miserable job.

If we are to correct the injustice that children have to suffer because of failed government policies then we need to embrace the freedom to choose among education providers allowed to compete. That means school choice.

Monopolies never help consumers. And as Milton Friedman, the father of school choice, recognized so accurately in 2000, “Only a truly competitive educational industry can empower the ultimate consumers of educational services — parents and their children.”

This week celebrations are taking place nationwide and around the world in memory of the late Nobel laureate economist, perhaps the most influential economist of the 20th Century. Even after his passing, his ideas are still have impact on how to improve education.

Indeed, Friedman’s most celebrated education idea – breaking the big-government monopoly with school choice – is not only gaining traction in many countries across the world but is gaining incredible momentum in the United States.

Currently there are 51 private school choice programs in 24 states and Washington, DC is enabling more than 300,000 students to transfer to a private school of their parents’ choice. The majority of those programs have been embraced by state lawmakers in the past four years.

A new poll commissioned this spring by the Friedman Foundation found increasing support for school choice. More than six in 10 Americans (63 percent) support vouchers compared with 33 percent opposed, according to the national poll of 1,007 adults across the country.

That is a significant increase from the same “Schooling in America Survey” conducted in 2012, which found 56 percent supported vouchers. In this spring’s poll, 69 percent of parents of school-age children supported vouchers. In 2012, support among these parents was 59 percent.

The greatest support for school vouchers was among African Americans (74 percent), Hispanics (72 percent), and young adults (69 percent). Perhaps that’s because minorities and young people have the toughest time in today’s economy getting good jobs – and they recognize the importance of a quality education.

Like any free market, if education is allowed to compete, consumers – the students – would benefit the most. For example, when government quit deregulating the telephone industry the cost dropped and quality improved. Better yet, new technology came on the market and now we have an amazingly competitive smartphone industry.

The same would happen if government would allow students to use tax dollars to choose the school of their choice. Schools would improve and new and innovative educational opportunities would emerge from online learning platforms to specialty learning services.

As Friedman’s birthday is celebrated in 47 states and 23 countries this week, let’s remember that choice and freedom is a tide that lifts all boats and offers a prosperous path for all. If we continue to look the other way when it comes to the education monopoly, then we will perpetuate mediocrity – and long-term economic hardship and unemployment – for generations to come.

Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose.