The Father of Modern School Reform

Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman introduced the idea of school vouchers. Now he looks back on his legacy.

In 1955 future Nobel Prize�winning economist Milton Friedman kick-started modern education reform with an article titled "The Role of Government in Education." Bucking the "general trend in our times toward increasing intervention by the state" in virtually all economic and social activities, Friedman argued that universal vouchers for elementary and secondary schools would usher in an age of educational innovation and experimentation, not only widening the range of options for students and parents but increasing all sorts of positive outcomes.

"Government," wrote Friedman, "preferably local governmental units, would give each child, through his parents, a specified sum to be used solely in paying for his general education; the parents would be free to spend this sum at a school of their own choice, provided it met certain minimum standards laid down by the appropriate governmental unit. Such schools would be conducted under a variety of auspices: by private enterprises operated for profit, nonprofit institutions established by private endowment, religious bodies, and some even by governmental units."

Among other things, Friedman prophesied that an education system based on vouchers would minimize inefficient government spending while giving low-income Americans, who are traditionally stuck in the very worst public schools, a better chance at receiving a good education. Vouchers "would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy."

Fifty years after Friedman's article appeared in the collection Economics and the Public Interest, proposals for education reform take many shapes: legally mandated performance assessments at the state and federal levels, means-tested vouchers, charter schools, homeschooling, and calls for universal vouchers or for the complete separation of school and state, to name just a few. Despite their many differences, what all proponents of radical and systemic change have in common is an emphasis on choice and competition as a means of increasing educational performance and parental and student satisfaction. As in so many other areas of economic and social thought, Milton Friedman's ideas have carried the intellectual day. To be sure, if and when those ideas will be put into widespread practice is another question.

At 93 years, Friedman is still fiercely dedicated to increasing the range and quality of education--and to decrying what he sees as the pernicious influence of teachers unions and other forces of reaction. In 1996 Friedman and his wife and longtime collaborator, Rose, started the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit designed to act as "a resource for parents and community groups who want parental choice in education." The foundation is online at www.friedmanfoundation.org; visitors to the site can read through a wealth of information on school choice, including Friedman's collected works on the topic.

Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie caught up with Friedman by telephone in September. Comments should be sent to letters@reason.com.

Reason: What inspired you to come up with the idea of vouchers?

Milton Friedman: Nothing. (Laughs.) I mean there was nothing going on in the real world at the time that caused me to think of vouchers. I was writing a piece on the role of government in education, and I started to think about how government intervention tends not to work very well. I didn't put it this way then, but if government wants to subsidize something, it can subsidize either the producer or the consumer. Subsidizing the producer is the wrong way to do it because it creates a top-down organization, which is very inefficient. The better way is to subsidize the consumer, which is what vouchers do.

Reason: What would the biggest benefits be if vouchers were implemented in the way you originally discussed them in 1955?

Friedman: Let's be clear. There are many kinds of possible vouchers, but there are two basic varieties, which I label charity vouchers and educational vouchers. Charity vouchers are unfortunately what we've gotten mostly so far. They are intended for low-income people who are unquestionably the worst victims of our deficient school system. Charity vouchers help the poor but they will not produce any real reform of the educational system. And what we need is a real reform.

I want vouchers to be universal, to be available to everyone. They should contain few or no restrictions on how they can be used. We need a system in which the government says to every parent: "Here is a piece of paper you can use for the educational purposes of your child. It will cover the full cost per student at a government school. It is worth X dollars towards the cost of educational services that you purchase from parochial schools, private for-profit schools, private nonprofit schools, or other purveyors of educational services. You may add from your own funds to the voucher if you wish to and can afford to." (I try to avoid calling government schools public schools because I think that's a very misleading term.)

As to the benefits of universal vouchers, empowering parents would generate a competitive education market, which would lead to a burst of innovation and improvement, as competition has done in so many other areas. There's nothing that would do so much to avoid the danger of a two-tiered society, of a class-based society. And there's nothing that would do so much to ensure a skilled and educated work force.

Reason: Do you think America has become more stratified by class during the last 50 years?

Friedman: I do. We have been going from a rural or quasi-rural society to an aristocratic society. There's no doubt that in recent years the upper end of the income scale has enjoyed a much larger increase in income and wealth than the lower end.

Reason: Do you take any comfort that more graduating high school seniors go on to college now than in the past? About two-thirds go on to college now, which is up from 45 percent in 1960 and 50 percent in 1970. That would seem to indicate that more people have more access to more education.

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