Why Milton Friedman Saw School Choice as a First Step, Not a Final One

On his birthday, let’s celebrate Milton Friedman’s vision of enabling parents, not government, to be in control of a child’s education.

Libertarians and others are often torn about school choice. They may wish to see the government schooling monopoly weakened, but they may resist supporting choice mechanisms, like vouchers and education savings accounts, because they don’t go far enough. Indeed, most current choice programs continue to rely on taxpayer funding of education and don’t address the underlying compulsory nature of elementary and secondary schooling.

Skeptics may also have legitimate fears that taxpayer-funded education choice programs will lead to over-regulation of previously independent and parochial schooling options, making all schooling mirror compulsory mass schooling, with no substantive variation.

Friedman Challenged Compulsory Schooling Laws

Milton Friedman had these same concerns. The Nobel prize-winning economist is widely considered to be the one to popularize the idea of vouchers and school choice beginning with his 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education.” His vision continues to be realized through the important work of EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, that Friedman and his economist wife, Rose, founded in 1996.

July 31 is Milton Friedman’s birthday. He died in 2006 at the age of 94, but his ideas continue to have an impact, particularly in education policy.

Friedman saw vouchers and other choice programs as half-measures. He recognized the larger problems of taxpayer funding and compulsion, but saw vouchers as an important starting point in allowing parents to regain control of their children’s education. In their popular book, Free To Choose, first published in 1980, 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. (p.161)

They continued:

The compulsory attendance laws are the justification for government control over the standards of private schools. But it is far from clear that there is any justification for the compulsory attendance laws themselves. (p. 162)

The Friedmans admitted that their “own views on this have changed over time,” as they realized that “compulsory attendance at schools is not necessary to achieve that minimum standard of literacy and knowledge,” and that “schooling was well-nigh universal in the United States before either compulsory attendance or government financing of schooling existed. Like most laws, compulsory attendance laws have costs as well as benefits. We no longer believe the benefits justify the costs.” (pp. 162-3)

Still, they felt that vouchers would be the essential starting point toward chipping away at monopoly mass schooling by putting parents back in charge. School choice, in other words, would be a necessary but not sufficient policy approach toward addressing the underlying issue of government control of education.

Vouchers as a First Step

In their book, the Friedmans presented the potential outcomes of their proposed voucher plan, which would give parents access to some or all of the average per-pupil expenditures of a child enrolled in public school. They believed that vouchers would help create a more competitive education market, encouraging education entrepreneurship. They felt that parents would be more empowered with greater control over their children’s education and have a stronger desire to contribute some of their own money toward education. They asserted that in many places “the public school has fostered residential stratification, by tying the kind and cost of schooling to residential location” and suggested that voucher programs would lead to increased integration and heterogeneity. (pp. 166-7)

To the critics who said, and still say, that school choice programs would destroy the public schools, the Friedmans replied that these critics fail to

explain why, if the public school system is doing such a splendid job, it needs to fear competition from nongovernmental, competitive schools or, if it isn’t, why anyone should object to its "destruction." (p. 170)

What I appreciate most about the Friedmans discussion of vouchers and the promise of school choice is their unrelenting support of parents. They believed that parents, not government bureaucrats and intellectuals, know what is best for their children’s education and well-being and are fully capable of choosing wisely for their children—when they have the opportunity to do so.

They wrote:

Parents generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else. 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. However, U.S. history has demonstrated that, given the opportunity, they have often been willing to sacrifice a great deal, and have done so wisely, for their children’s welfare. (p. 160).

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Voucher Programs Today

Today, school voucher programs exist in 15 states plus the District of Columbia. These programs have consistently shown that when parents are given the choice to opt-out of an assigned district school, many will take advantage of the opportunity. In Washington, D.C., low-income parents who win a voucher lottery send their children to private schools.

The most recent three-year federal evaluation of voucher program participants found that while student academic achievement was comparable to achievement for non-voucher students remaining in public schools, there were statistically significant improvements in other important areas. For instance, voucher participants had lower rates of chronic absenteeism than the control groups, as well as higher student satisfaction scores. There were also tremendous cost-savings.

In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has served over 28,000 low-income students attending 129 participating private schools.

According to Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation and a prolific researcher on the topic, the recent analysis of the D.C. voucher program “reveals that private schools produce the same academic outcomes for only a third of the cost of the public schools. In other words, school choice is a great investment.”

In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was created in 1990 and is the nation’s oldest voucher program. It currently serves over 28,000 low-income students attending 129 participating private schools. Like the D.C. voucher program, data on test scores of Milwaukee voucher students show similar results to public school students, but non-academic results are promising.

Increased Access and Decreased Crime

Recent research found voucher recipients had lower crime rates and lower incidences of unplanned pregnancies in young adulthood. On his birthday, let’s celebrate Milton Friedman’s vision of enabling parents, not government, to be in control of a child’s education.According to Howard Fuller, an education professor at Marquette University, founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and one of the developers of the Milwaukee voucher program, the key is parent empowerment—particularly for low-income minority families.

In an interview with NPR, Fuller said: “What I'm saying to you is that there are thousands of black children whose lives are much better today because of the Milwaukee parental choice program,” he says.
“They were able to access better schools than they would have without a voucher.”

Putting parents back in charge of their child’s education through school choice measures was Milton Friedman’s goal. It was not his ultimate goal, as it would not fully address the funding and compulsion components of government schooling; but it was, and remains, an important first step. As the Friedmans wrote in Free To Choose:

The strong American tradition of voluntary action has provided many excellent examples that demonstrate what can be done when parents have greater choice. (p. 159).

On his birthday, let’s celebrate Milton Friedman’s vision of enabling parents, not government, to be in control of a child’s education.

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