Milton Friedman and School Choice

We could have gone the other way. Instead of providing classrooms and teachers and making attendance compulsory under the original “progressive” guidance of Horace Mann we could have from the beginning provided parents, at least those in need of help paying the tuition costs, with voucher monies that could have enabled the children to attend a school of their own choosing.

Milton Friedman as early as 1950, some one hundred years after Horace Mann’s Common School movement of the previous century (and with which we are still struggling so far in vain to make it work for all students) advocated for a universal school voucher program that would allow parents, all parents with school age children, to choose their preferred school environments.

So far, however, Friedman’s idea has not been tried, other than in bits and pieces, here and there, the largest “bit” and the largest “there” being the voucher experiment begun in 1990 and still going on in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin public schools, and being strictly and appropriately limited there to poor families.

Reformers and defenders of the public schools argue incessantly about the results of the few voucher experiments that have been tried so far, mostly arguing about whether vouchers work to significantly and substantially further educational goals. And there are two sides to this one argument.

But they needn’t bother. It is a non-issue. In fact, we ought never to have confused these paltry voucher trials with the kind of country wide, all inclusive system that Friedman was proposing. And on a Friedman fashioned universal voucher system the jury is still out because, as I repeat, it hasn’t yet been tried.

And primarily because we didn’t as a country go the Friedman way of educational choice, we have not created a thriving and responsive educational market place or school system where educational institutions, competing with one another for students (as do quite successfully our elite independent schools and colleges) would directly confront and, if they would survive, satisfy the wants and needs of their student and parent clientele, while all the time being no less subject to government regulation than private hospitals and banks (as well as “government” police and fire departments).

Instead we have created a public school system that is by and large responsive, not to the needs of the learners, nor to the needs of the country, but to the needs and wants of the adults in charge. These adults, the administrators and teachers, are assured a captive audience and they need pay little attention to attracting and holding onto that audience.

(There are those who would change the system by removing the privileges of some of those adults — Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, for example, who would make it easier to fire a teacher, but even that, as incisive as it may seem, would be nowhere near enough.)

While the adults in these schools will usually know what and how they want to teach they will too often know little about their students, how these will best learn, what interests them, what motivates them. How long would a business stay in business if it did not constantly seek to meet and satisfy the wants and needs of its customers? Yet schools go on forever with little or no knowledge of who their students are.

One thinks again of that old Soviet joke, the one that says: “They Pretend To Pay Us, and We Pretend To Work.” Well what is it that most goes on in our public schools, those schools that the kids have not chosen to attend, no more than did the Soviet citizen choose to live and “work” in the Soviet state? Well isn’t it just that, “They pretend to teach us, and we pretend to learn?”

Teach for a day in a public school classroom. Put yourself, perhaps as many as five times during the day, in front of some 15 to 25 individuals that have only two things in common, their age and their compulsory attendance in your room. Then at the end of the day ask yourself whether the best summation of your experience isn’t that you pretended to teach them and that they, on their best behavior, pretended to learn.

If it ever were to happen, that schools were selected by their student-clients, then the schools would have to be most of all concerned with the effectiveness of their program, with whether their students were in fact learning, because otherwise they would lose them. And rightly so.

This is not the case, of course, at present when students almost no matter what they do or don’t do in school, are never lost by the schools. Whatever the results of their attending school, whatever the evidence or their not having acquired important skills and knowledge, the students keep coming back (except of course for the three out of ten who start school and drop out before graduating from high school).

If we didn’t learn it from the experience of the Soviet Union we ought to have learned it from our own public schools. For there is little evidence to the contrary, that people, when given things without their having to do something for them in exchange, will use those things well, or even profit from them for their own purposes.

And there is a lot of evidence that what they are given, in this case what the schools provide, will be wasted. Think language laboratories, libraries, science laboratory equipment, and such, not to mention the new one or more million dollar classrooms and school buildings.

What’s missing now most of all is the sense of personal responsibility. Who is responsible? Who is making sure that learning does take place? No one. Remember the “you pretend, I pretend.”

Friedman’s vouchers would begin the process of making the learners responsible for their own learning. For more and more of them would want their voucher monies to be well spent. How many are now concerned about how well our tax dollars are being used?

2 thoughts on “Milton Friedman and School Choice”

  1. Philip:

    Very well said. Competition in the education system would be great.

    I think a ton of tax money is wasted in education.

    The difficulty is a very powerful and entrenched union or better yet monopoly – not easy to change quickly.

    Seeing Rhee step down from her position in DC was distressing, but perhaps she will go onto greater things ala Friedman’s idea or other.

    Outside of the teachers’ lobby what other forces do you see as being instrumental towards keeping the status quo?

    Vendors to the education system, orgs that wish one main educational system so that that can influence what is taught, etc.?



  2. Other question here:

    If one was able to realize Friedman’s vision would there be need to set a core curriculum up until a certain age?

    Math, history, science, language, etc.

    Meaning would each state need to set this or would you leave it up to the various schools with the idea that parents would send their children to the school that offered the best education for general knowledge and ability to earn a living?


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