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Celebrating Milton Friedman and School Choice

by austin peters / /

In a time of increased federal government intervention, school choice has been a silver lining for small government supporters. The idea that parents should be empowered to choose the school their children attend and that market mechanisms can be utilized to fix the declining American school system has gained popularity with both politicians and the public. Surprisingly, many forget who the intellectual father of the school choice movement is none other than the esteemed economist Milton Friedman.

Friedman's discussion of school choice started over 50 years ago in an essay "The Role of Government in Education." The piece outlined two main arguments for school vouchers that are still the basis of the voucher system today. First, he argued that schools based on choice would lead to competing among local institutions. The better a school's results, the more students the school would have elect to attend, and the more money they would receive through either government payments or vouchers. Secondly, Friedman argued that voucher programs are a more moral system because it did not limit children's choice of educational institutions to one designated by their home address.

From 1955 on, Milton Friedman became one of the lead champions of school choice. However, the idea faced heavy resistance from teacher unions and politicians on both sides of the isle. Nonetheless, in typical Friedman style, he pushed on with his efforts. Over time, he succeeded in sidestepping special interests and politicians by finding avenues to speak directly with citizens about the issue. For example, Milton dedicated a full episode to the topic during his very popular PBS Free to Choose Series that aired in 1980.

The concept of school choice continues to fight for acceptance. Initially a preferred method of liberal activists to help impoverished urban minorities escape poverty, the idea was later adopted by the Republican Party when Ronald Reagan made it the focus of his education plank in the 1980 Presidential Election. After Reagan's electoral success, it took another decade before Friedman saw his ideas become reality in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin when a voucher program was adopted for some students in its school district in 1990.

While Milton would prefer to see every child already enjoying the option of choice, the movement has made significant progress since it was first conceived. There is no doubt that the father of school choice would be proud to see Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, and even the District of Columbia adopt some variation of a voucher system. He would surely smile his iconic smile at the innovation school choice supporters have utilized to create charter schools and tuition tax credits in various states across the country.

With Friedman Legacy Week over, many of us reflect upon the economic genius of the man who shaped so much of the world as we see it but let us not forget his devotion to promoting school choice.