Ten years ago today, Milton Friedman, the famed economist and Nobel laureate, died, leaving behind an oeuvre that has become the framework for free-market arguments, especially those made by school choice advocates.
Our nation has made some great strides in fulfilling Friedman’s vision for education since his death, but how much further must we go, and what’s standing in our way?
Friedman is often credited with being “the father of school choice.” He wrote in favor of ending the public school monopoly by making government schools private and “introducing competition on a broad scale” by giving families educational vouchers.
“Government has appropriately financed general education for citizenship, but in the process it has been led also to administer most of the schools that provide such education,” Friedman wrote. “Yet, as we have seen, the administration of schools is neither required by the financing of education, nor justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society.”
In other words, is it appropriate for government to manage everything it finances? No, it is neither advisable nor practical. The government already pays private military contractors. Similarly, local governments advertise projects that private construction companies can compete for and win with bids. Government already entrusts the private sector to complete important work with public money. Why not listen to Friedman and entrust parents themselves with public money to pass onto the most qualified school?
Individual states are making progress. EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an organization Friedman and his wife started in 1996, writes on its website, “When we started, there were only five educational choice programs serving fewer than 10,000 students. Today, there are 61 programs in 30 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 400,000 students.”
Progressing from a system in which only 10,000 students have some form of school choice to 400,000 is noteworthy and impressive, but 400,000 is a drop in the bucket when one considers about 50.4 million students are currently attending public elementary and secondary schools. Even though families who have access to school choice report they are overwhelmingly satisfied and thousands of families are on waitlists to get access to these programs, school choice is being stifled. Friedman himself said before his death, “Progress toward our objective of universal vouchers has been distressingly slow.”
In a nation that supposedly values its liberty above all else, how is it possible school choice continues to be something many people reject? The answer is there is a high degree of ignorance among many parents and in the general public about the benefits of school choice and what education freedom would actually look like, and teachers unions work tirelessly to ensure this ignorance persists and to maintain the narrative that only the traditional government school system offers kids the support and compassion they need.
But as Friedman once wrote, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
Americans have been trained to believe government schools are a great public service. Many never bother to pause and judge if the service is living up to its promises or to ask why the United States, despite spending more on education than any other nation in the world, lags so far behind many other industrialized nations in education quality.
Many people are unaware of school choice programs because public schools have held a monopoly on U.S. education for so long and because teachers unions and their cronies, who have a vested interest in that monopoly, work so hard to protect it. They spend millions of dollars to buy the favor of politicians who will do their bidding and will work to stop school choice at all costs.
Another frightening, widespread belief is that government-run schools are better because “government schools do their best”—even when they fail. Private schools, many people reason, won’t be as interested in protecting individuals since they are not affiliated with a compassionate government agency. This, however, is total nonsense. Anyone who has ever gone to the post office or to a Department of Motor Vehicles office should know better. But this erroneous view persists nonetheless, as proven by the reaction I received after penning a recent letter to the editor to a publication arguing parents should be their children’s primary educators (namely in sex education).
As one commenter wrote in response, “Yes, lets [sic] leave it to the parents because they are all doing such a GREAT job of teaching respect, work ethic, responsibility and the importance of learning and critical thinking.”
Another person said, “Due to many issues beyond our control, many parents don’t or can’t do certain things for their children. The government is forced to do it for them. That is why the government educates them, provides breakfast and lunch for many students, and also teaches many principles that will help make them productive citizens.”
“Sex ed [is] too important to be left to the parents,” wrote another.
No one who commented agreed with my point of view, which, of course, doesn’t mean no one agreed, but it does show the hyperbolic proposal Plato makes in The Republic, that children be held and raised in common, is no longer considered absurd.
EdChoice acknowledges we are far from “a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go.” But Friedman’s idea of school choice has stimulated an important and long overdue national discussion, which the Hoover Institution’s Eric A. Hanushek writes “has grown and penetrated the broad public.”
“A majority of parents and citizens now believe that [school] choice is desirable,” Hanushek writes.
Those who experience school choice are happy and want more of it. The word is spreading, and the latest election saw voters in several states opt for an education system that would make Friedman proud. Yes, much work remains to be done, but in time, freedom will prevail.