The great Milton Friedman assesses once again the role of government in education and the current state of efforts to provide ch0ice to parents as to where to send their children to schools with the dollars they and their neighbors pay in taxes to the government, in today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal‘s Opionion Journal.
Identifying the central obstacle that school choice has encountered throughout the half-century since Friedman set the ball rolling, he writes, “we have been repeatedly frustrated by the gulf between the clear and present need, the burning desire of parents to have more control over the schooling of their children, on the one hand, and the adamant and effective opposition of trade union leaders and educational administrators to any change that would in any way reduce their control of the educational system.”
Friedman correctly sees grounds for optimism, however:
“The good news is that, despite these setbacks, public interest in and support for vouchers and tax credits continues to grow. Legislative proposals to channel government funds directly to students rather than to schools are under consideration in something like 20 states. Sooner or later there will be a breakthrough; we shall get a universal voucher plan in one or more states. When we do, a competitive private educational market serving parents who are free to choose the school they believe best for each child will demonstrate how it can revolutionize schooling.”
I think that Dr. Friedman is right (as usual!) in predicting that the movement may finally be reaching a point of real influence. A crucial element of this was the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision ruling the Cleveland voucher plan constitutional. Prior to that ruling, it was very difficult for school choice to get traction. Since then, however, activity has increased rapidly.
I don’t consider school choice a panacea by any means. There are numerous reasons why the American education system is declining. (Friedman aptly quotes Paul Copperman as published in the National Commission of Excellence in Education’s 1983 final report, “A Nation at Risk”: “Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”) Alas, that statement is more true today than it was in 1983. And it is a scandal.
Although school choice is not all that needs to be done to fix the American education system, I do see it as a necessary condition for any real reform of America’s schools. The current system is too powerful and sclerotic to allow change. The diversity and parental choice that vouchers would bring are a critical element of real educational reform in the United States.