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Monday, July 31, 2023

On His Birthday, Milton Friedman Would Be Happy

Friedman's vision lives on through educational choice. [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

I think that Milton Friedman would be happy.

I can’t know for certain, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist passed away in 2006 at the age of 94, but he spent much of his career advocating more education choice for families. 

Today, as we honor what would be Friedman’s 111th birthday, millions of families now have those choices. 

According to recent data from EdChoice, the organization formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice that the Nobel laureate and his economist wife Rose founded in 1996, roughly 18 million US students, or 37 percent of the K-12 population, have or will soon have access to private school choice options in their state. 

This means that these students are able to use a portion of state education funding toward a private education option of their choice, including tuition at a private school, and, in some states, a broader array of learning options including microschools, learning pods, homeschooling programs, tutoring, and educational tools and therapies. 

Eight states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia, now enable every K-12 student to access these dollars if they choose, with six of those states enacting these universal education choice policies just this year.

The idea of separating government provision of education from taxpayer funding of education through school choice mechanisms like vouchers was popularized by Friedman in his 1955 paper, The Role of Government in Education. In it, he explained the benefits of moving away from government-run education and toward government-funded education using vouchers. Friedman concluded: 

“The result of these measures would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children. They would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy.”

Notably, in subsequent decades, Friedman and his wife recognized that decentralizing education funding wasn’t enough. They saw school choice mechanisms as an important first step toward loosening the government’s grip on education but not a final one. In their popular 1980 book, Free To Choose, the Friedmans wrote: “We regard the voucher plan as a partial solution because it affects neither the financing of schooling nor the compulsory attendance laws. We favor going much farther.” 

While there is still much to be done to address the underlying compulsion inherent in U.S. education policy, the victories in school choice, especially this year, are worth celebrating. They enable more families to exit an assigned, government-run school if they are dissatisfied, and access a better alternative for their children. They inspire more education entrepreneurs to launch low-cost private schools and related learning models to meet parent demand for greater education choice. 

For example, Florida’s robust school choice policies over the past several years have led to rapid growth in the number of private schools in the state, according to education researcher, Ron Matus. With Florida’s new universal education savings account (ESA) program that extends choice to all families, education entrepreneurship is likely to accelerate. 

As Milton Friedman’s vision for decentralized, choice-filled education comes closer into view, it’s also worth remembering that Friedman put families first. He bristled at attempts to characterize parents, particularly low-income parents, as incapable of making the best education choices for their children.

“Parents generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else,” wrote the Friedmans in Free To Choose. “Social reformers, and educational reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children’s education and no competence to choose for them. That is a gratuitous insult. Such parents have frequently had limited opportunity to choose.”

Today, as well-meaning educational reformers implement school choice policies in many states, they would be wise to remember that parents don’t need hand-holding. They don’t need state-appointed “parent navigators” or government-approved definitions of educational “quality” and “effectiveness.” They don’t need state actors to tell them what a “good” school looks like. All they need is choice.

More families now have that choice, and that should make all of us very happy.