Vouching for Choice

In the past several years a wave of education reform has swept across the United States. Charter schools are on the rise, vouchers programs are springing up in various parts of the country, and parents have more control over their child’s education than at any time in our country’s recent past. This commendable progress, although far from finished, owes much to the efforts of Milton Friedman. Friedman consistently and forcefully espoused the virtues of educational choice and flexibility.

Perhaps the most well known of Friedman’s educational reform proposals was the school voucher system. In his seminal book “Free to Choose,” Friedman diagnosed the problem with the nation’s education system: “For schooling, the sickness has taken the form of denying many parents control over the kind of schooling their children receive. … Power has instead gravitated to professional educators.” Friedman recognized that the solution was to give parents more flexibility as to where their kids could go to school.

Friedman’s voucher plan, originally proposed in the 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,” was remarkably straightforward. Friedman noted that when a child is withdrawn from a public school and sent to a private school, taxpayers are spared the expense and liability of educating that child. There remains a disconnect, however, as the family that withdrew the child receives “no part of that saving except as it is passed on to all taxpayers.” Therefore, Friedman advocated giving such families a voucher in exchange for relieving the state of their child’s educational costs. If the family saves the state $4,000 in costs and receives a $2,000 voucher in return, the state still saves money while the family simultaneously receives assistance for private school tuition. This financial aid, in turn, would make private schooling financially feasible for a greater number of families.

In May of this year, Indiana passed comprehensive education reform legislation that the Wall Street Journal editorial board called “the most ambitious voucher program in memory.” The law provides over 7,000 vouchers in its first year of enactment, eventually uncapping the number of available vouchers in three years (but still limiting availability through means-testing). The vouchers award up to $4,500 for students who are in public schools and want to switch to another public or private school. The legislation also includes other mechanisms that enhance school choice, such as a $1,000 tax deduction for families that spend money on private school expenses. Other places where Friedman-inspired educational choice legislation has been proposed or enacted include Texas, New Orleans, Florida and Washington, D.C.

Although this wave of education reform is welcome, the gains achieved are tenuous and reversible. Entrenched interests — most notably public-sector teacher unions — are determined to stymie reform efforts. Given their organizational advantages and significant financial war chest, such entities are a constant threat to school choice.

It is also important recognize that vouchers are not the be-all-end-all of the educational reform movement. As Friedman himself wrote, “[My wife Rose and I] regard the voucher plan as a partial solution because it affects neither the financing of schooling nor the compulsory attendance laws. We favor going much farther.”

Friedman’s own intellectual contributions to education have made “going much farther” a greater possibility than ever before.


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