Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who popularized school vouchers and education choice, took seriously the idea of “the family as the basic social unit” of a free and flourishing society. In his 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman introduced his idea of school vouchers, arguing that society benefits from an educated citizenry and allowing that taxpayer money helps make education accessible to all, particularly the poor.
But Friedman made the clear distinction between government-fundededucation and government-run education. His idea of school vouchers was to provide parents with a sum of public money for their children’s education that they could use at any “approved” educational organization. In this way, school vouchers would work like food stamps, providing public money to feed hungry families but not requiring that families only shop at an assigned, state-run neighborhood grocery store. In his paper, Friedman likened his school voucher program to the G.I. Bill, the post-World War II program that allowed returning veterans to use a certain amount of money per year toward higher education. It publicly funded further education but stopped short of mandating where that education must occur or who could administer it.
Today is Milton Friedman’s birthday. He died in 2006 at the age of 94, but his legacy endures through EdChoice, the non-profit organization that he and his economist-wife Rose founded in 1996 as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Thanks to the efforts of school choice advocates, voucher programs currently exist in 15 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia, serving over 180,000 students. Additional states offer an array of education choice options, like tax-credit scholarships and Education Savings Accounts, that reach many more children.
In his pioneering article on school choice and vouchers, Friedman emphasized “the denationalization of education,” breaking down the government monopoly on compulsory schooling and expanding parental choice in education. Friedman writes: “Given, as at present, that parents can send their children to government schools with out special payment, very few can or will send them to other schools unless they too are subsidized.” Indeed, Friedman was right to point out the difficulty of private schools to compete with “free” public schools. In his book Schooled to Order, historian David Nasaw explains that as government schooling became compulsory beginning in Massachusetts in 1852, the number of private schools in the state dropped from 1,308 in 1840 to only 350 by 1880. Similar trends occurred in other states as they enacted compulsory schooling laws, with private school enrollment subsequently plummeting.
With vouchers and other education choice mechanisms, Friedman saw the potential to secure educational opportunity for all through public funding, while relying to a much greater degree on parental choice, free market innovation, and private administration of education options. Just as food stamp recipients can choose what to purchase at whichever participating private grocery store they choose, so too parents could choose from among a variety of private and public education options.
Friedman concludes his seminal paper by describing the positive outcome of school choice measures in reducing government monopoly power over education, and expanding and diversifying the educational opportunities available to parents. He writes:
“The result of these measures would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children. They 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.”
On his birthday, it’s worthwhile to remember Milton Friedman’s vision for a pluralistic educational landscape, accessible to all, that places families first.
 Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Schooling in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 83.
Kerry McDonald (@kerry_edu) has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard. She lives in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband and four never-been-schooled children. Kerry is the author of the forthcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press). Follow her writing at Whole Family Learning.
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