May 8, 2023
Milton Friedman’s vision of applying free market principles to schools is the basis of today’s School Choice movement. Unfortunately, his analysis of funding parent education choices with government money is not consistent with today’s political realities. He did not foresee how the government drive for detailed control would prevent his vision from being practical.
The scenario analysis was succinctly put before the public (at 40:55) in 1980 during Friedman’s PBS television series Free To Choose:
Thomas Shannon: I am struck with the anomaly that arises out of any of this discussion about the voucher system. The facts are that government support, call it subventions, call it direct aid, call it grants in aid, call it vouchers, call it anything, will lead ultimately to government control of the private schools, thus undercutting the alternative nature of private schooling and hurting it at its very source.
Milton Friedman: We’ve had long experience with that on the higher education level. You have the whole GI Bill. Did the GI Bill really lead, fundamentally, to control of all the schools? There’s a fundamental difference between government giving money to an institution, to a school — that does lead to control directly — and government giving money to people to use.
The food stamps don’t determine what people buy with their food stamps…. My point is that don’t underestimate the crucial difference between making money available to parents to spend as they choose to exercise their judgment, and making money available to institutions like schools, which they spend subject to all the conflicts with schoolteachers and others.
In his book Free to Choose (pages 161, 163), Friedman says:
The voucher plan embodies exactly the same principle as the GI bills that provide for educational benefits to military veterans. The veteran gets a voucher good only for educational expense and he is completely free to choose the school at which he uses it, provided that it satisfies certain standards…..
The voucher plan would produce a much wider range of alternatives—unless it was sabotaged by excessively rigid standards for “approval.”
And that is exactly the problem with Friedman’s analysis. The GI Bill model does not apply today to School Choice.
The GI Bill works because its standards for schools are focused on making sure veterans get their money’s worth. Here are some GI Bill standards from the student’s standpoint:
- Tell you what is your expected student-loan debt after you graduate
- Give you an educational plan that shows how and when you can fulfill all graduation requirements
- Make sure all new programs are accredited (officially approved) before enrolling students
- Make sure their refund policies follow Title IV rules
- End fraudulent and aggressive methods of recruiting
But today’s School Choice school standards are veering towards a focus on accountability regulations relating to enforcement of specific government approved course content or on social engineering goals. The money is not being made “available to parents to spend as they choose to exercise their judgment,” as Friedman specified.
Instead, what Friedman called ‘excessively rigid standards for “approval”‘ in the form of detailed course content and social engineering goal requirements, dictate the choices of parents.
In Indiana, Catholic school parents were indirectly coerced to use curriculum conforming to state learning objectives for the public schools.
In Maine, social engineering goals were imposed on voucher recipients. Parents could not utilize vouchers “to promote discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry“.
all schools that accept public funds, including religious schools, must abide by the Maine Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability. That would mean accepting gay and transgender teachers and pupils.
Friedman’s vision of government money subsidizing unfettered education choices of parents is not working out for many parents. And as accountability regulations continue to spread, so will the inability of parents to choose what is best for their children.
Thomas Shannon’s prediction is on its way to becoming true: School Choice “will lead ultimately to government control of the private schools.”