School Choice Movement Mourns Founder

Published December 1, 2006

When Milton Friedman died on November 16 at the age of 94, the school choice movement lost its founder.

Friedman, whose work as an economist earned him the Nobel Prize in 1976, believed in small government and letting the market do its work in all areas of the economy. In a 1955 essay, “On the Role of Government in Education,” Friedman turned his discerning eye on public education, writing that vouchers that follow the child would improve education by promoting competition between schools.

National Movement

Fifty-one years later, that idea has become a national movement.

“Among the greatest champions of freedom in all of history, Milton Friedman was a giant. His greatest legacy is the tens of thousands of children who now attend high-quality schools because of the idea of school choice that Dr. Friedman pioneered in 1955,” said Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice.

“He leaves that precious legacy to a new generation of leaders who must nurture and expand it,” Bolick continued. “I will personally miss a dear friend, but he will serve eternally for me and countless others as a source of towering inspiration.”

George Clowes, a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute and former managing editor of this publication, interviewed Friedman in 1998.

“He was very courteous, although he did correct me when I suggested he was a conservative,” Clowes recalled. “Vouchers are needed in K-12 education, he said, to eliminate the competitive disadvantage private schools face in providing an alternative to government schools. The most direct way of doing that, he said, is through a system of vouchers.

“‘If you’re trying to go into the business of selling chocolate and somebody down the street is taking money from you in order to give chocolates away,’ then you’ve got a difficult time making a business out of that,’ he said,” noted Clowes.

Intellectual Giant

Though he stood only 5 feet, 3 inches, Friedman was an intellectual giant whom many found intimidating–though sometimes only momentarily.

“The first time I met Milton was at a Friedman Foundation conference in San Francisco back in 1998,” recalled Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. “I received a last-minute invitation to share the stage with Milton, [his wife] Rose, and [economist] Thomas Sowell because Milton had read the unfinished manuscript for [my book] Market Education: The Unknown History and wanted me to say a few words about it.

“We hadn’t spoken together before going on stage, and just as they were about to switch on our microphones, Milton leaned over and said something like, ‘Good book, except for the bad-mouthing of vouchers in Chapter 10.’ For a second,” Coulson said, “I thought I was about to have my as-yet-unreleased manuscript carved up by a Nobel laureate economist in front of several hundred people.

“Then he smiled and added, ‘but we can talk about that later.’ And so we did, on and off, ever since. Milton was kind, candid, generous with his time, and displayed remarkable personal integrity. I’ll miss him,” said Coulson.


That, perhaps, is what those who had the pleasure of meeting him will remember most about Friedman.

Though his work as an economist–now being carried on by millions whose work has been influenced by his ideas–was hailed the world over, by scientists and heads of state alike, Friedman remained down-to-earth until the end.

“His ideas, energy, and reputation all played major roles in the creation of The Heartland Institute–the first free-market ‘think tank’ devoted to a particular state’s public policy issues–in 1984,” said Heartland Institute founder and President Joe Bast. “Today there are some 40 similar think tanks, and Heartland has moved on to become a national organization. We are all Milton Friedman’s legacy.

“Over the years, Dr. Friedman was generous toward me with his advice and assistance, providing often-lengthy comments on books and policy study manuscripts, recommending that students and academics contact me, and encouraging me in many ways,” Bast said. “He was always generous with his time, never harsh or judgmental in his criticism, and always optimistic. He was a teacher, a mentor, and a philosophical touchstone that could be counted on, no matter how stormy the political climate might be.”

Bast noted Friedman’s historical importance, saying, “Few people actually change the course of history; fewer still change it in positive ways, ways that benefit the lives of millions and even billions of people. Milton Friedman was such a person. It was an incredible honor to have known and worked with him.”

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

For more information …

A collection of tributes to Milton Friedman, video clips, and links to some of his work is available on The Heartland Institute’s Web site at