Choice Advocates Assemble at Friedman Conference

Published December 1, 1998

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman urged legislators, corporate executives, and community leaders attending the first conference to be hosted by the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation to broaden their vision of what change and innovation would bring to a K-12 education industry operating in a competitive environment instead of under public education’s monopoly.

While the turbulent semiconductor industry is a burgeoning $150 billion business, noted Friedman, K-12 public education is twice as large–yet the most technologically backward sector in the United States, with the teaching profession virtually unchanged over 100 years.

“No one could have imagined where the computer industry would go when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer in their garage,” he said. “We cannot imagine where education will go” once schooling is opened up to competition.

Friedman’s remarks were made to about 200 business, political, church, and education leaders from across the nation who attended the conference “School Choice and Corporate America,” held October 10-11 in San Francisco. The conference was aimed at discussing the role of corporate America in promoting school choice and providing the necessary and practical tools to ensure future victories for choice. Participants heard from some of the nation’s top political and business leaders.

Participants also heard from choice opponents apparently shocked by the mingling of education and business. Outside the conference hotel, a group of protesters denigrated capitalism and denounced the privatization of schools as greedy corporations “taking money from our children and putting it into the pockets of shareholders who already have more than enough!”

But when one tall, twenty-something activist entered the conference hotel, intent on assaulting the diminutive 86-year-old Friedman, it became clear to conference participants that the debate on school choice was over: the foes of choice had surrendered the intellectual and moral high ground and were now relying on physical intimidation to defend the government education monopoly.

“The dynamics behind school choice have changed,” agreed the Wall Street Journal‘s John Fund, who monitors the movement from a national perspective. “The intellectual battle is over, the media battle is being fought, but the political battle is far from over,” he added.

Even the political battle is already half-won, according to Minnesota Gov. Arne H. Carlson. “We’re not fighting an uphill battle, we’re fighting a battle where the public is already with us,” he said.

A recent Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll confirms Carlson’s view. More than half the American public (51 percent to 45 percent) for the first time now favors allowing parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school if the “government pays all or part of the tuition.”

In fact, with the intellectual battle conceded, the San Francisco conference in many respects resembled a family reunion, a joyous gathering of the various offspring of school choice–tuition tax credits, private scholarship programs, education savings accounts, tax deductions for home schooling, private management of public schools, and charter schools–that have grown and matured since Milton Friedman first sent the voucher idea out into the world some 43 years ago in 1955.

“We started with Milton Friedman having a wonderful idea,” said Mayor Bret Schundler, describing his efforts to bring school choice to Jersey City, New Jersey.

“These are just a few of the many fruits of the seeds that Milton and Rose Friedman sowed many years ago,” said CEO America President Fritz Steiger, describing two young children who are currently benefitting from private scholarship programs. Earlier in the conference, Gov. Carlson had described how his life was changed by a scholarship that took him out of a poor area in the Bronx. If it weren’t for that scholarship, “I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

But conference participants recognized that much work remains to be done. “The spirit of Rose and Milton Friedman needs to be replicated in the minds of many others,” said the Rev. Floyd H. Flake.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.