Milton Friedman, Father of School Choice

Published July 31, 2012

Louisiana’s  10,000 kids clamoring for vouchers may never know it, but they owe their school  choice opportunity to a dead white guy whose birthday is this week.  So do  the approximately 700,000 mostly poor and minority kids now eligible to attend  schools their families choose with public funds.

Nobel  laureate and economist Milton Friedman graduated from a New Jersey public high  school in 1928 and considered it his life’s most important work to conceptualize  and promote school choice.  Friedman introduced the idea of school vouchers  in 1955.

The  100th anniversary of Friedman’s birth is today, July 31.  The  intellectual giant battled against the fallacies of Keynesian economics and in  favor of market freedom, and his  influence on today’s economists and policymakers remains immense.  One of  his great gifts was an ability to explain complicated economic and social  principles clearly and entertainingly to average folks.

At  Friedman’s death, approximately 106,000 children were taking advantage of  private school choice programs, according to his legacy foundation, the Friedman  Foundation for Educational Choice.  School choice has increased  exponentially since then.

Why?   Because Americans still love freedom and equal opportunity.  Earlier  this year, 61 percent of moms and 55 percent of adults polled nationally said  they favor a school voucher system that would allow tax dollars to follow  children to the school of their choice, private or public.  Average folks  agree with Friedman.

Friedman  frequently compared public schools to monopolies like Ma Bell and the U.S. Post Office.  Monopolies vaporize freedom  and opportunity.  It is easy to see how standardized public schools  vanquish personal freedom: students must attend schools assigned by ZIP code,  parents who want another option must  usually pay twice for it (once in taxes and again in tuition), students get  treated like widgets on a factory line, and because someone other than parents  is paying the bills, schools don’t have to respond quickly and completely to  parents’ concerns.

Monopolies  rely on force to control customers; if they didn’t have that option, they’d lose  those customers.  In a competitive environment, by contrast, a school would  survive only by offering something good people want, attracting rather than  forcing them through the doors.

The  public-school monopoly also limits individual opportunity. People don’t need to  see school district comparisons like the Global Report Card to know that some  public schools are just better than others.  Kids attending the rotten  schools, or stuck with a rotten teacher, are just out of luck.  They  usually have no opportunity to choose something better, which several economists  have recently demonstrated leads to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost  income for these students and trillions in lost economic output for the  nation.

These  strangled students are disproportionately poor and minority.  No wonder  huge majorities of these groups love school choice.

Friedman’s  vision of school choice for all is the most liberating, equitable education policy available.  His 1955 flash of voucher  inspiration might be best described with a 1970s slogan: “Power to the  people.”

A  year before he died on November 16, 2006, Friedman said his proudest  accomplishment would be universal school choice, if that ever came to pass.   Seven months before that, he had written, “Progress toward our objective  of universal vouchers has been distressingly slow, but there has been progress.”   A few years later, universal school choice is on the wing.  If  Friedman sees it from up there, he’s smiling.  So are those who are benefiting from his idea.

Joy  Pullmann ([email protected])  is managing editor of School Reform News and an  education research fellow at The Heartland  Institute.