The late Dr. Milton Friedman’s contributions to economics and political philosophy are monumental, as the entire free-market movement has paused to remember this week. Yesterday, July 31, marked the centennial of his birth. It also is worth appreciating a very small but significant bit of advice that he offered his allies when it came to advocating educational reform.
Quite simply, Dr. Friedman urged his supporters to drop the term “public schools” and, instead, say, “government schools.” As he told Reason magazine in December 2005: “I try to avoid calling government schools public schools because I think that’s a very misleading term.”
Dr. Friedman addressed this issue in San Francisco at a May 2, 2001, workshop of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (with which I am a senior fellow): “Government schools are not really public schools,” he quipped. “They’re really private schools run by the teachers’ unions.”
Dr. Friedman, in his brilliance, observed that Harvard University is “public,” in so far as members of the public can apply for admission and, if accepted, study there. Furthermore, anyone can walk onto Harvard’s campus, pretty much around the clock.
Despite all of this public access, it remains a private institution.
University of Massachusetts at Amherst is different. Anyone in the public can apply and perhaps get in. The public also can step onto the campus, just like Harvard. The key difference is that U. Mass is owned by the government — with everything that this entails.
The term “public” has a positive ring, as in “public service” and “the public good.” Pro bono publico is a lovely idea.
The word “government” lacks this gloss. It rarely gives people a warm and toasty feeling.
Thus, the term “government schools” stops people in their tracks. It reminds them why schools run by politicians frequently fail: They are part of the same state that too often robs us blind, delivers poor services, and founders in corruption.
Similarly, Americans had little trouble with “the estate tax.” Few people burst into tears at the notion of rich people in “estates” paying higher taxes.
However, when Jim Martin of the 60-Plus Association persuaded fiscal conservatives to decry the “Death Tax,” Americans suddenly became outraged at the fact that Uncle Sam taxes dead people. Support for this levy plunged, and it actually vanished — for one year. Alas, the Death Tax sprang from the dead as part of the 2010 extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.
Americans who miss Dr. Milton Friedman can honor his memory and continue his excellent work in modernizing American education. They can abandon the term “public schools” and adopt the phrase “government schools.” While plenty more needs to be done to rescue the American classroom, each of us effortlessly can take this small step forward.