The Once and Future Voucher

Published October 1, 2006

Liberty & Learning: Milton Friedman’s Voucher Idea at Fifty
Robert C. Enlow and Lenore T. Ealy, editors
Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2006
166 pages, paper, ISBN: 1-930865-86-4, $11.95

In 1955, when Milton Friedman penned his essay “The Role of Government in Education” and laid out for the first time his arguments for school vouchers, he could not have imagined the animosity his ideas would provoke among opponents, or the zeal among supporters, half a century later.

In at least one way, Liberty & Learning: Milton Friedman’s Voucher Idea at Fifty is like Friedman was in 1955–largely unaware of the great debates between those who love choice and those who despise it.

But that is not because the book’s contributors really don’t know about those battles. Indeed, most are regular combatants. No, the book is silent on the overall choice debates because its intent is to honor Friedman, and perhaps even more importantly, to examine differences within–not outside–the school choice movement.

The book begins by easing into intra-choice differences, offering somewhat mild chapters that either gently chide choice supporters for some of their political tactics, or that explore choice from angles other than pure economics.

Pervading Culture

In the first chapter, for instance, University of Southern California professor Guilbert C. Hentschke examines Friedman’s proposal for universal elementary and secondary vouchers, and argues that to keep choice relevant today, supporters should focus not on universality but on such things as “circumstance-tested” vouchers and pre-kindergarten choice.

In another early chapter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Abigail Thernstrom combines her school choice support with her work on culture in education, especially among African-Americans, to argue that a culture of choice–including choice in education–must pervade African-American society for blacks to advance.

“There are no excellent big-city school systems–not one is successfully turning around the lives of inner-city kids,” Thernstrom writes.

“Only schools whose mission is both academic and cultural can hope to succeed in such a transforming project,” Thernstrom continues. “But that dual mission cannot be accomplished except in schools in which choice permeates the educational culture.”

Demanding Choice

Once eased into the school choice movement’s self-examination, the second half of the book digs into the real heart of the intra-choice divide: How far should choice supporters go toward demanding universal, unbounded, school choice?

That question is addressed most directly in chapters by Myron Lieberman, Andrew Coulson, and John Merrifield, all three of whom make it clear they are far from satisfied with the current state of the school choice movement.

Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute, begins his contribution by critiquing Friedman himself, regretting Friedman has tended “to bless every expansion of school choice, without any reservation or mention of [the expansion’s] noncompetitive or anti-competitive features.”

This proclivity of Friedman and others, Lieberman asserts, has confused people both within and outside the choice movement about what “school choice” really means. Is it any “equalitarian” program that helps a few parents pick their children’s schools, or only initiatives that give everyone–both consumers and suppliers–as much freedom as possible?

Lieberman clearly favors the latter definition.

Creating Markets

In the next chapter, Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, marshals a great deal of evidence supporting “Friedman’s conclusions that state-run schooling is unjustifiable in a free society and that education is best delivered through the private sector.”

Coulson argues we should consider decentralizing education even further than the voucher systems Friedman’s 1955 essay called for.

Merrifield, an economics professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, ties Lieberman’s and Coulson’s arguments together, calling on choice supporters to stop celebrating constrained programs and to start explaining what’s needed to create real education markets.

“Choice advocates must diplomatically explain that stymieing the positive effects of genuine competition hurts everyone,” Merrifield writes.

Showing Proof

As clear as the calls are by Lieberman, Coulson, and Merrifield to unfetter choice, it is the book’s last chapter that best makes the case for letting the market work. It does so by showing the free market is, right now, providing effective education to many of the world’s poorest children.

“Charging very low, affordable fees, private schools are emerging that cater to some of the poorest people on this planet,” explains James Tooley, a professor at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom.

In several critical ways, Tooley says, these private schools “seem to be superior to state schools.”

It is this finding, above all else, that best substantiates both Friedman’s original voucher idea and the proposals to extend choice beyond what has been achieved so far. Now not only do we know that in theory the market is the best way to deliver education, we know it in practice.

What better tribute to school choice or to Milton Friedman could there be than that?

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.