Friedman’s Wisdom on School Choice

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.

Read the article, and then go out and get a copy of Friedman’s brilliant book Capitalism and Freedom and read it right away, if you somehow haven’t done so yet.


6 thoughts on “Friedman’s Wisdom on School Choice

  1. I support the voucher system because I think it is more just than the present system. But don’t you worry that its implmentation would lead to government control over educational institutions that now operate relatively free from government control? That is, would not vouchers lead to the elimination of the very thing that makes these institutions superior to governemnt controlled schools?

  2. That is definitely a valid concern, and one that I share. It is worth noting, however, that the states already have the power to regulate private schools pretty much to their hearts’ content, and yet they largely refrain from doing so. The extension of public money to students at these schools will undoubtedly bring, on the one hand, increased calls for regulation of these schools. On the other hand, however, it will increase the number of people who have a stake in these schools, which will motivate those voters strongly to oppose increased government controls on their schools. In addition, schools could presumably be allowed to opt out of the voucher system and any attendant requirements if they wish. I have no doubt that a goodly number would do so for a variety of reasons.

    The current experiments with charter schools are perhaps indicative. Typically they are considered public schools, and some states regulate them a bit more heavily than others, but in all cases the regulation is a tiny fraction of what is imposed on conventional public schools.

    Introducing choice into the schools would, I think, be so popular and successful (in raising student achievement and lowering costs) that most people would be loath to turn these private schools into an adjunct of the old public system. That’s my estimate, anyway.—STK

  3. I have definitely become less supportive of these types of initiatives over time. I once brushed off the type of concern raised by John Huisman, but after studying church and state in Sweden I have become much more concerned about opening doors to possible governmental control.

    Still, on balance I’d like to see more pilot projects emerge so we can observe the consequences.

  4. How can you still cling to the notion that “free enterprise” is somehow healthy? It’s failed miserably at EVERYTHING except for the production of luxuries (where it does fine). Nuclear power? It did abysmally. Privatized Prisons? Terribly, even criminally run. Privatized power? Thank Enron for the California Blackouts because it made them more money. Privatized Water? In WTO countires it’s lead to poorer service and higher rates.

    And now you want to trust children to these ticks?

    When will you get it?

    When will you admit that unrestrained capitalism is ferociously anti-human? That it violates every one of your supposed pro-life principles?

    Business should be given free reign of inconsequential luxuries and absolutely precluded from every other human endeavor because it has proven they cannot be trusted with the responsibility.

  5. I’d love to agree with you, if only it weren’t for the abysmal record of the statist solutions.

  6. As an anarchist I tend to agree with you that states tend to do things badly. But if we as a people choose to have an organized society the states have always proven more reliable than the corporations. The states afterall must maintain some facade of public service while the corporations are only ever accountable to the bottom line.

Comments are closed.