Fifty Years Closer to Choice

Published September 1, 2005

In considering the role government plays in various areas of life in 1955, Milton Friedman cast his discerning eye on education and saw a Six Million Dollar Man.

Government-controlled public education was already well on its way to becoming a total wreck. But Friedman, seeing what the G.I. Bill had done for soldiers returning from the recently concluded World War II, envisioned a way to rebuild it–better, stronger, faster.

The result was an essay, “On the Role of Government in Education,” which proposed a universal voucher system as a way to allow government to continue financing public education while separating it from its administration, establishing a true free-market arena in which choice would be equal for all, competition would be fierce, and only the best schools would survive. In 1962, the essay became a chapter in Friedman’s historic book, Capitalism and Freedom.

Fifty years after the essay was first written, Friedman’s idea has become the ticket to a better education for some 36,000 students in a handful of voucher programs scattered nationwide.

Half Empty or Half Full?

To some education reformers, the numbers cited above read rather pessimistically: A half-century of thought, research, funding, and legislative struggle has given the nation only a half-dozen voucher programs, most operating at the city level. Another two generations of American schoolchildren, those reformers say, will be woefully undereducated before the nation can achieve true freedom of choice for all.

And, if they’re waiting for the pure, universal voucher system Friedman proposed in 1955, they could be right.

But others–including Friedman himself, recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Economic Science, who is now 93–take a broader view. Though vouchers have been slow to gain a foothold–“distressingly slow,” as Friedman wrote in his Nobel Laureate autobiography–the advent of new technologies is beginning to usher in some real free-market competition in the education arena.

In addition to voucher programs operating in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington DC, Florida, and Utah, more than 3,000 charter schools are now educating about 1 million children across 40 states. Another 1 million students have foregone public education altogether in favor of homeschooling; many of them take advantage of distance-learning programs over the Internet.

In addition, in the sometimes-stressful atmosphere created by the stringent demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), for-profit companies are beginning to see vast opportunities, providing supplemental educational materials and tutoring to help schools and students achieve federally mandated goals.

Right Time for Change

The voucher program Friedman envisioned might have been slow in reaching even its infancy, but the time is ripe, he has said, for true choices to begin to emerge.

“If I’m right,” he told Education Next in 2000, “the voucher movement is going to expand and grow. There will be a brand new industry: the education industry, a private, for-profit, and non-profit education industry. It will introduce competition in a way that’s never existed before.

“The dam is breaking, and as it breaks, and I think it will, the water will rise more and more rapidly. I think choice is going to be here. I don’t know when, it’s been a long time coming, but it’s starting to come.”

A Life of Influence

Beyond articulating the idea of school vouchers, Friedman may well have an additional legacy rooted in how his work has shaped the thinking of the next generation of education reformers.

John Merrifield, a professor of economics at the University of Texas-San Antonio, was born the same year Friedman wrote “On the Role of Government in Education.” Though he first learned of Friedman’s work when he was in graduate school studying environmental and resource economics, eight years ago Merrifield realized the realm of education was too important for him to ignore.

The results of his involvement in education so far include two books: The School Choice Wars (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education Press, 2001) and School Choices (Oakland, CA: Independent Institute, 2002).

“One of the reasons vouchers haven’t been implemented more than they have is that everyone seems to have their own idea of what they ought to be, and the coalition breaks down,” Merrifield said of the slow progress. “The default is always what we’re doing now.

“One of the problems we’re having now,” Merrifield continued, “is that the system hasn’t gotten perceptibly worse–it’s that the parents of the kids went through it and their perception of what can be done is colored by that. So they expect less for their own children, not having any idea of what a school could do.”

Public Unfamiliar with Concepts

Another problem reformers have had to overcome in advancing vouchers has been sheer inertia. Not many members of the general population are familiar with the concepts of vouchers and charter schools.

Also, “the teachers unions have convinced teachers and the public that change is too risky,” Merrifield said. “But the teachers themselves might become so disgusted that they revolt. None are really thrilled with what teaching is like in the current system. Many are already for free-market accountability and choice, though they’re not a majority yet.

“Many teachers just see school choice as meaning that more teachers will earn less money,” Merrifield said. “They don’t understand that private schools will have as much money to pay teachers as public schools do now, and incentives to use it to pay teachers instead of fritter it away on administrational levels.”

Cracks in the Dam

After spending the first half of his career as an academic heavily influenced by Friedman’s writings, John Chubb has spent the second half putting Friedman’s ideas into practice.

In 1992, Chubb helped found Edison Schools–a for-profit chain of schools currently enrolling 250,000 students across 20 states–and has served as its chief education officer ever since. In the early 1980s, he was an assistant professor at Stanford University spending a year at the Hoover Institution–where Friedman is a senior research fellow–studying the differences between public and private schools.

“Milton had written the seminal piece on the likely effects of markets on schools, in the late 1950s, so [research partner Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford] and I were obviously drawn to what he had to say to help shape our thinking about the impact markets might have,” Chubb said. “From that point on, we focused on the data and what it had to say, but when it was done, we published Politics, Markets and America’s Schools in 1990, which recommended a choice-based school system.

“It was not the pure voucher system [Friedman] had recommended–it was closer to today’s charter school model. It turned out to have a lot of influence, but it all can be traced back to Milton’s work in the late 1950s.”

What the Future Holds

In the next 50 years, Chubb thinks American education will come a lot closer to Friedman’s vision, as the free-market atmosphere continues to evolve. It won’t be long, Chubb said, until charter schools enroll 1 million children, and virtual schools complete with instructors are springing up online.

“Even the way public schools work now is more market-oriented–they’re much more accountable for results, they can be closed down, parents are being given more choice within systems,” he explained.

“I would share the skepticism of whether [universal] vouchers will be introduced,” Chubb said, “but I think we’re already seeing that more choices are being accepted, and in some places, they’re quite dominant.”

Charter schools provide about 25 percent of the public education in both Washington, DC and Dayton, Ohio. About 1,000 private providers are competing to tutor children in failing schools around the nation, “and that’s done by vouchers, whether you call them that or not, because parents can go to any provider they want, public or private. Providers have flooded into that marketplace,” Chubb said. Also, schools failing to meet NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements must restructure, and as a result, for-profit companies such as Edison Schools that can take them over are multiplying as the market grows.

“If you look at the role of the market today versus where it was only a few years ago, that’s an enormous change, and I think it’s likely to continue,” Chubb said.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation have prepared a 36 inch by 11 inch timeline poster highlighting some of the top moments in school choice history. Starting with Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman’s school voucher proposal in 1955 to the passage of programs in Utah and Ohio during 2005, it highlights 50 years of school vouchers. To request your free copy, go to