School Choice & Charters

Friedman Disappointed That Voucher Plans Aren’t Bolder

By Mark Walsh — December 12, 2001 2 min read
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It has been 46 years since the economist Milton Friedman proposed giving parents taxpayer-financed tuition vouchers to send their children to private schools.

Mr. Friedman, now 89, said last week that he stands by his idea as much as when he first outlined it in a 1955 academic article titled “On the Role of Government in Education.”

“The basic idea is if the government is going to pay for schooling, the money should follow the student,” he said last week.

Mr. Friedman was in San Francisco, speaking via videoconference to a small group of reporters gathered at the National Press Club here on Dec. 4. The conversation was arranged by the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization that supports various school choice efforts, and by the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal group helping to defend the Cleveland voucher program.

The Cleveland program, the subject of a case likely to be argued in the U.S. Supreme Court in February, is the backdrop for renewed interest in private school vouchers. Supporters believe that if the Supreme Court upholds the use of government-financed vouchers to pay tuition at religious schools, the movement will blossom beyond the limited programs approved over the past decade by lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida.

“It would help greatly to have vouchers clear this hurdle,” Mr. Friedman said in a reference to the legal battle.

Though he acknowledges that he is not a constitutional scholar, Mr. Friedman has long argued that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on a government establishment of religion would not bar a program in which parents themselves decided to use a voucher at a religious school.

Mr. Friedman has approached the issue from the perspective of free-market economics. In 1976, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1946 to 1976, and is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Under his theory, a government near-monopoly in education is to blame for a stifling and poor-performing school system. Vouchers would introduce competition, and “the development and improvement of all schools would thus be stimulated,” Mr. Friedman argued in his 1955 article.

What about charter schools, he was asked last week. Those largely independent public schools have expanded choices for parents and have been laboratories for alternative teaching and learning ideas, their proponents say.

“Charter schools are a halfway house,” he said. “They are still government schools.”

While his foundation has filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of the Cleveland voucher program, which is aimed at low-income families, Mr. Friedman really argues for a universal voucher system.

“A program for the poor will be a poor program,” he said. “All parents should have the same choice.”

He once believed that some bold state would enact a “full-fledged voucher program,” which would lead others to follow. He has had to settle for limited experiments, with those coming long after he first proposed vouchers.

“I have been much more optimistic than has been justified,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Friedman Disappointed That Voucher Plans Aren’t Bolder

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