A half-century after he made his now-famous proposal to privatize the nation’s education system, the economist Milton Friedman predicts that his vision of vouchers for all will become a reality before another 50 years have passed.
“I won’t be around to see it, but I would be amazed if you did not have an almost complete termination of the government running schools,” the Nobel laureate and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University said in an interview last week. “I would be surprised if 50 years from now, you don’t have universal vouchers.”
Mr. Friedman, 92, made education policy history in 1955 when he called for giving parents vouchers to spend on the public or private schools of their choice in “The Role of Government in Education,” an essay published in the journal Economics and the Public Interest.
Forty-one years later, he and his wife, Rose, formed the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation with a mission of “promoting school choice to improve, through competition, the quality of K-12 education for all.”
This week, the foundation is set to mark the 50th anniversary of Mr. Friedman’s proposal with a fund-raising gala in New York City on June 22 featuring former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Mr. and Mrs. Friedman are slated to take questions from the audience on school choice.
Surveying the education landscape in an interview last week, the economist and stalwart champion of the free market said he views the trend as positive, even though school choice legislation suffered more defeats than victories this year in state legislatures. (“School Choice Loses Legislative Momentum,” June 8, 2005.)
Still, he said, change is “much too slow.”
“The number of students using vouchers and being schooled under choice programs is larger this year than it was last, larger last year than the year before that, and so on,” he said. “But it’s still very small.”
A Dead End?
Mr. Friedman has long argued that voucher programs targeting only poor families would end up as poor programs. And so while he supports programs like those in Milwaukee and the District of Columbia, which give vouchers to low-income families for tuition at secular or religious private schools, he worries about the precedent they have set.
“If their example of restricting vouchers to low-income families alone is followed, the whole movement will soon come to a dead end,” he said. “If indeed the voucher program is viewed as a charity program and not as an education program, it doesn’t have a future.”
In a case that many analysts see as important to that future, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments this month in a lawsuit contending that a voucher program there violates the state constitution’s ban on aid to religious institutions. Mr. Friedman called such constitutional restrictions, which are often called Blaine amendments, “a very severe obstacle.”
But he left it to others to decide if school choice proponents should seek to have such provisions stricken from state constitutions. “It’s a question of costs and probabilities,” he said.
As for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda, Mr. Friedman sees the 3-year-old law as a “mixed bag.”
While he favors the law’s focus on standards and accountability, he said was disappointed that it did not include Mr. Bush’s original proposal to allow children in underperforming schools to transfer to private schools as well as other public schools.
“You can only really have accountability if you have competition and choice,” Mr. Friedman said.