Last month, monetary economist Milton Friedman died at age 94. In 1955, he published a seminal essay titled “The Role of Government in Education.” In the essay, Friedman proposed an idea radical for its time: Unrestricted universal school vouchers would give parents more educational choices for their children and improve education by encouraging competition and innovation. It was the beginning of the school-choice movement.
#ad#As a free-market economist, Friedman believed that in a “free private enterprise exchange economy, government’s primary role is to preserve the rules of the game by enforcing contracts, preventing coercion, and keeping markets free.” He then applied this reasoning to education. He specified the three roles that government plays in education — legislating compulsory schooling, financing schooling, and administering schooling — and concluded that, while there was some justification for the first two roles, the administering, or “nationalization,” of schooling was more difficult to rationalize in a free market.
Earlier this year, the Cato Institute published Liberty & Learning: Milton Friedman’s Voucher Idea At Fifty, a collection of ten essays edited by Robert C. Enlow and Lenore T. Ealy. Each contributor considers a different way in which Friedman’s school-choice ideas are still relevant.
The collection centers around three themes: school choice and democratic values, challenges to implementing vouchers, and what expanded school choice might look like. Contributors include such writers and researchers as Guilbert C. Hentschke, a professor at the University of Southern California; Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Abigail Thernstrom, co-author of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Educational Policy Institute; and Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.
Hentschke opens the discussion by comparing differences in education, households, and government since the 1950s. He argues that parental income and education levels are more highly correlated now than they used to be and that “educational wealth” is a real transferable asset. Because government schools do a relatively poor job of educating, school choice is more important than ever, especially for lower-income families.
Given the seemingly intractable academic achievement gap between black and white students, essays dealing explicitly with race are compelling. In “A Culture of Choice,” Abigail Thernstrom argues that urban black and Latino students would benefit the most from choice. Much of her work focuses on black inner-city children since black kids’ academic problems seem “more deeply rooted and harder to remedy.”
Thernstrom has spent years assessing student academic performance and contends that even black and Latino kids from affluent families are behind their white and Asian peers because their subcultures are disconnected from “mainstream American values” of choice and responsibility.
But this is not an insurmountable problem for schools, Thernstrom argues. With longer periods of instruction, focus on core academic subjects, and safe and orderly environments, these schools manage to overcome a subculture isolated from the “tacit norms of dominant culture.” Thernstrom writes:
Superior schools in today’s inner cities counter the isolation of black kids from mainstream norms by…[insisting] that their students learn how to speak standard English; show up on time, properly dressed; sit up straight at their desks, chairs pulled in, workbooks organized…walk down halls quickly and quietly…listen to teachers politely and follow their directions precisely; treat their classmates with respect; and shake hands with visitors to the school, introducing themselves.
Good academic and social skills are important for closing the achievement gap, and inner-city schools that work are “of necessity, schools of choice.”
Third-World Private Schools
James Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle, U.K., explores how vouchers targeted to “hardship cases” might play out in the context of developing countries and poor families.
Tooley was surprised to find private schools in third-world countries that cater to the poor, charging between $1 and $3 a month, which is affordable to most of the working poor. In “slum” areas of countries like India, China, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya, he discovered that, although facilities at government schools were superior, teacher quality and educational achievement were higher in the private schools.
The existence of private schools for the poor tends to weaken the argument against school vouchers that poor parents are unable or unwilling to pay for their children’s schooling. Tooley proposes that, in the absence of government intervention, “grass-roots privatization of education” might possibly spring up in the United States as it has in developing countries.
Under a government education monopoly, the only recourse for most parents faced with poor public schools is to move to a better neighborhood or take their kids out of government schools and pay for their education twice — “once in taxes and once in tuition,” Friedman wrote in the book’s epilogue, a 2005 article. “Just as the breakup of the Ma Bell monopoly led to a revolution in communication, a breakup of the school monopoly would lead to a revolution in schooling.”
School choice would force taxpayer-supported schools to improve and compete for students. A “revolution in schooling” will require a critical mass of parents to demand it.
– La Shawn Barber is a freelance writer and blogger in Washington, D.C. Visit her blog at www.lashawnbarber.com.