Can’t Get There from Here? Milton’s Been There He Knows the Way

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Today is the 102 anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman. My favorite Friedman quote is one recently rediscovered by Stephanie Linn from a 1995 WaPo column Dr. Friedman penned:

The private schools that 10 percent of children now attend consist of a few elite schools serving at high cost a tiny fraction of the population, and many mostly parochial nonprofit schools able to compete with government schools by charging low fees made possible by the dedicated services of many of the teachers and subsidies from the sponsoring institutions. These private schools do provide a superior education for a small fraction of the children, but they are not in a position to make innovative changes. For that, we need a much larger and more vigorous private enterprise system.

The problem is how to get from here to there. Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system. The deterioration of our school system and the stratification arising out of the new industrial revolution have made privatization of education far more urgent and important than it was 40 years ago.

And even more important today than when Dr. Friedman typed the column. Friedman saw this clearly, and the time has come for the rest of us to catch up: today’s stock of private schools are a means to an end for an important but ultimately small group of students-even with a voucher or tax credit program in place. The stock of empty private school seats represent a vital opportunity for the students who could fill them, but in the big picture it is crucial to focus upon how to get new providers to create new opportunities for students. Voucher programs that can only be used at private schools and only provide enough funding to cover the marginal cost of adding a student to an empty seat are vitally important for the small number of students participating but ultimately represent an evolutionary dead-end.

It’s a shame that it took those of us in Milton’s intellectual debt a decade and a half to create a method to “get there from here” in the form of ESAs, but better late than never. We simply aren’t as bright as the great Milton Friedman, so we will need to work together to bring about the revolutionary improvements he saw as possible so clearly for so many decades.

Happy birthday Dr. Friedman-we are doing our best to catch up to where you got decades ago.



5 Responses to Can’t Get There from Here? Milton’s Been There He Knows the Way

  1. pbmeyer2014 says:

    So you guys really are for “privatization” of schools, just like Diane says?

  2. matthewladner says:

    Nope- the public funding of K-12 is guaranteed in every state constitution and enjoys widespread public support. Public education is as close to a permanent feature of public life as you can find, despite the self-serving paranoid mumbling of those seeking the favor of reactionaries like Diane.

    What we can change is the way that parents interact with public schools and how much influence they have over them. If funding went to parents rather than to schools, it would make all interactions between the parents and the schools a system of voluntary exchange. This would serve as an enormously powerful system of bottom-up accountability.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Hey, Matt, you forgot to mention that school choice only “privatizes” schools to the extent that parents choose private schools over public schools.

    It’s fascinating to me that people who think of themselves as champions of public education universally assume that as soon as you give parents a choice, they’ll stampede for the doors so quickly that no one will be left to turn out the lights.

    The real champions of public schools are the supporters of universal choice. School choice improves public schools, and it is the only reform with a solid track record of doing so.

  4. matthewladner says:

    Indeed-the closest experiment we have to universal choice comes from Florida, where every single special needs child (13% of the public school total) has had access to scholarships to attend a school of their choice since 2001.

    Lo and behold some 13 years later we find that six percent or so of students use the scholarships to transfer. The public schools have more money and students than ever, but the scores of special needs students have improved at faster rate than average for Florida students or for special needs students around the nation.

    If this is the terrible “privatization” we are supposed to fear then gimme gimme shock treatment!

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