Dr. Friedman's Vision for Education

A pioneer in school choice

Today is Dr. Milton Friedman's birthday. The renowned economist who brought economic principles to the masses would have been 102 today.

One of Dr. Friedman's most valuable contributions was his work on education policy. In this regard, Friedman was a visionary. Most people accept the status quo, namely a system of government-run schools, without considering its justification or how it can be improved. 

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But in 1955, Dr. Friedman considered the arguments for a public education system and concluded that the valid ones could only justify a taxpayer-supported education system — not an education system of government-run schools.

Dr. Friedman wrote then: 

Governments could require a minimum level of schooling financed by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on “approved” educational services. ... The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions. The role of the government would be limited to insuring that the schools met certain minimum standards.

This system would provide for an educated society, he argued, and would allow parents to choose the best school for their child. Further, Dr. Friedman noted, opening government schools up to competition would create a wide variety of educational options and motivate existing schools to improve.

Dr. Friedman and his wife Rose Friedman spent decades advocating for a system of educational choice. In 1996, 40 years after the publication of Dr. Friedman's article "The Role of Government in Education," the Friedmans went one step further and founded the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which has provided research and advocated for increased educational options.

The Friedmans' commitment to educational choice is inspiring. When they began the Friedman Foundation, few educational choice programs were in existence. Meanwhile, the status quo has been strongly promoted by its beneficiaries, and the political candidates they support. Most people would not have the tenacity to spend decades arguing for a policy that took so long to take hold. 

But the Friedmans understood that complacence was not an option. The status quo has resulted in rampant increases in spending, without demonstrated improvement. The status quo has meant that only Americans wealthy enough to purchase a house of their choosing could choose a public school that worked for them. The status quo has meant that many generations of students never had the opportunity to achieve their true potential.

This commitment to educational choice has resulted in an ever-increasing system of public and private school choice. In Michigan, the number of public charter schools available to families has increased to close to 300 schools, and they have a demonstrated record of producing better educational results. As of 2013, almost 220,000 Michigan students used some form of choice to attend a public school. 

Though it is tempting to simply celebrate these increased options, the best thing we can do today to honor Milton and Rose Friedman's legacy is to remind ourselves that we must not become complacent.

Families are still routinely investigated in some districts for having the audacity to try to send their child to a better school. State officials have allowed some conventional districts to shortchange students for decades, and there are active efforts to take away the educational choices Michigan families have because they threaten the status quo.

Those who suggest that the status quo is the best we can do lack vision. An innovative system of educational choice that prioritizes the needs of families instead of officials is possible in Michigan, if we fight for it.