WASHINGTON -- A report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has found that reading scores among the nation's hapless middle-school students have shown little improvement over the past two years, remaining at the same dismal level where they have lingered since the early 1990s. Math scores have improved only slightly. This can not be good for the commonweal nor for the self-esteem of our nation's youth. I am told they even find prime-time television inscrutable. Even the more complicated lyrics of rap music mystify them.
Something has to change in the education of our elementary- and secondary-school pupils. If this were to happen, think of the enjoyment that they might derive from prime-time television's clever sitcoms. TV's public service advertisements about obesity and anger management might become accessible to them. Perhaps, our nation's universities could move on from providing average students with what in decades past was considered a high school education. A genuine college education would no longer terrify the "C" student.
To their credit public school administrators have been concerned about improving schools for years. They have increased funding until we now spend more per pupil in real dollars corrected for inflation than any other nation on earth. They have introduced new courses and brought in therapists. In some schools they have even brought in police officers, and I am told the schools in California provide various types of massage and even yoga. Nothing has yet worked aside from what are called "alternative schools," and even some of them quickly go downhill. One or two in Washington, D.C. were in danger of becoming terrorist camps until the authorities shut them down.
One alternative to public schools has worked well, though it could work even better, to wit, vouchers. It is now fifty years since the great Milton Friedman devised a voucher plan to improve elementary and secondary education. In his masterful little book, "Capitalism and Freedom," the future Nobel laureate suggested that rather than having the government subsidize schools the government should let parents subsidize schools that answer their children's needs. Government checks would go to parents rather than to schools. The checks would be called vouchers. Almost all voucher schemes since the publication of "Capitalism and Freedom" have been limited to low-income families. They have allowed the parents of inner-city students the choice of sending their children to private schools rather than nearby public schools, which are invariably bad schools. Yet this is only part of Friedman's vision.
While Friedman has wanted the poor to have a choice, he foresees vouchers as improving education nationwide. He would give all parents vouchers, thus establishing a market in education. In commerce markets provide improved and diversified products at lower costs. In education a market would do the same. Writing in the November issue of The American Spectator, Friedman notes the evolution of cars and TVs in our market economy. At first they were only purchasable by the well-off "at high prices [that] thereby supported production while the cost was being brought down, until what started out as a luxury good for the rich became a necessity for the poor." By introducing competition among schools, vouchers would create educational curricula for different needs and at a lower cost.
The problem with today's voucher system is that it is too limited. It does not really establish a market in education. Thus public education remains rigid and unresponsive to students' needs, namely the needs demonstrated in the report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the need to teach young people to read and do math. Though Milton Friedman and his wife, also an economist, Rose Friedman, have been campaigning for vouchers for years, neither has given up. They are in their nineties now, but their faith in human nature is as boundless as their energy. When they first argued for vouchers in the 1950s, few thought vouchers had a chance. In fact few thought market solutions applicable to public problems. I recall the conventional mixed-economy economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, sneering in debate with William F. Buckley Jr. that markets do not even exist.
The Friedmans have lived to see most of the world accept the existence and value of markets. Doubtless in time markets will exert their force in education also, and to education's gain.