Many American parents aren’t happy with where their kids attend school, and what they learn there.

While the vast majority – eighty-five percent – of families send their children to public schools, only a third would continue doing so if they had the wherewithal to send them elsewhere, according to a survey from Gallup. That means millions of American students are not in the right learning environment for their specific needs, goals, and strengths.

School choice programs, like education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships, and vouchers, have mostly been aimed at the low-income, urban demographic worst-served by the current system. But the large mismatch between parents’ needs and the educations their children are getting in our one-size-fits-all system suggests a broader approach is warranted. All students, whether they leave or remain in their assigned public schools, can benefit from the empowering leverage and competitive effects of educational freedom.

In a new Policy Focus, I lay out some of the evidence for those benefits in more detail, as well as the differences between program types and some policy lessons from the dozens of states that have implemented some type of private school choice.

Studies overwhelmingly show academic improvement among both students utilizing school choice and those who stay enrolled in public schools. But moderate test score gains pale in comparison to the community impact from more satisfied, involved families, lower crime rates among students, and increased measures of civic practice.

For example, University of Arkansas researchers examined the criminal records of students who had gone through the Milwaukee voucher program and grown up into young adults. Among those who had the opportunity to use the voucher to attend private schools, felony convictions were lower than matched public school students by an overwhelming 79 percent. Drug crime and theft convictions were down by 93 and 87 percent, respectively. These kinds of results don’t just alter the trajectory of a kid’s future; they change families and transform neighborhoods.

Standardized testing and government compliance as a form of accountability has its place for evaluating systems from the 10,000-foot level, but it can never hope to compete with what parents know is working for their child. The evidence overwhelmingly points to the common sense truth that parents and families know better than faraway bureaucrats.

In an era when the cultural fabric of our diverse republic seems to be fraying at the seams, educational freedom provides the flexibility, family-centered decision making, and practice in self-government that may help rebuild our civic culture and civil society.  It’s time to implement broad school choice so that every American student has the opportunity to be the best learner and citizen he or she can be.

Takeaways: What is School Choice? by Independent Women's Forum