Milton Friedman’s Role Of Government In Education

“It’s a disgrace that there is more illiteracy today than there was 100 years ago.” – Milton Friedman

Image Credit: The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice / Public Domain

By William Haupt III [Tennessee Watchdog Journalist, Columnist, Author, and Citizen Legislator via The Center Square] –

For decades after the American Revolution, our parents were the drivers of how and where their children were educated. Parents chose from home schools and private schools to educate their children. The first state public-funded schools appeared in the 1840s. But it was not until the 1900s during the Progressive Era that government gained control of funding and regulating education.

As government took more control of education, parents became subordinate to central education manipulation. Government dictated everything in every classroom. When Jimmy Carter married the National Teachers Union with the Department of Education in 1979, government and unions took ownership of education. If parents did not like local education, they had to pay for private schools.

Milton Friedman was an economist that rejected Keynesianism, the theory that government could control the economy better than free markets. Friedman’s view was based on the concept of free markets and “rational expectations.” Friedman theorized that free market competition is the most powerful tool in our nation to surpass any and all expectations we can expect from government.

Following the second Great War in the 1950s, Communists in Eastern Europe proved what a dangerous tool education was in the hands of government. A young economist, Milton Friedman did not want to see that in America and penned his thesis, defining “The Role of Government in Education.”

“A student’s education should not be determined by government but their parents.” – Milton Friedman

Friedman felt it was necessary for government to fund education, but it had no right to administer it. He believed monopolized government control of public education empowered the government to indoctrinate young minds into thinking the way politicians want students to think, not their parents. He blamed federal and union control of education for stagnant and declining student test scores.

Pointing to the economic success of market consumer choice and competition, Friedman blamed the lack of consumer choice on our inferior education system.

“It is unjustified for any government to have absolute monopolistic control over any commodity in the free markets.” – Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman said lack of competition in a nation built and dependent on free market principles produces inferior products. If we apply these economic principles to a non-responsive government-administered education program, competition for education dollars would vastly improve education.

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According to Friedman, to improve education we must find better methods to administer it and to finance it. He insisted, instead of government making the decisions how and where children are educated, they should provide education vouchers to parents to use for schools of their choice.

Friedman believed giving parents education vouchers would empower them to “improve education” though free market competition, which in turn would force the government’s inferior public school system to improve. As more and more parents choose private and chartered schools over failing public schools, the public-school systems would be responsive to parental concerns and improve.

“Most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” – Milton Friedman

Six decades later, we have living proof that Friedman’s “The Role of Government in Education” is the logical foundation of the modern American school-choice movement. People isolated from the academic world are seldom exposed to innovative ideas and concepts. So Friedman’s article went largely unnoticed in the public. But once those seeds were planted, over time they have blossomed.

In 1989, Wisconsin put Friedman’s ideas into practice when it approved the first voucher program allowing students to use vouchers to pay tuition at private schools. Shortly after, 18 states passed similar voucher programs. Vouchers remain the most attractive private school choice programs.

“Do-it-yourself education beats factory production education anytime anyplace.”  – Milton Friedman

In 2003 during an education symposium, Friedman suggested there are many alternatives to public education. He cited education savings accounts would allow parents to use taxpayer funds to pay for tuition and other education expenses. In 2011, Arizona implemented the nation’s first education savings account option. Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and North Carolina soon followed them.

A charter school is a tuition-free contract school, publicly funded, but independent from the public system. Friedman believed parents would support such a system. And this has come to fruition in over 40 states. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, many of the best-known charter school networks are run by nonprofit charter management organizations, or CMOs.

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Private religious school choice was ruled constitutional when the Supreme Court ruled it was legal for Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program to provide vouchers for students to attend nonreligious and religious schools. The court held that the program neither advances nor inhibits religion at any school and that publicly funded school vouchers go to the parents rather than the private schools.

Milton Friedman and wife Rose founded the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice in 1996 to promote freedom of choice in education. Today, it is simply called EdChoice. Although the name has changed, the mission lives on. There were only five education choice programs when it opened. Twenty years later, more than 400,000 students participate in 61 programs in 30 states.

Milton Friedman said, “Our mistake is to judge programs by their intentions not their results.” Our founders promised a quality education for every youth in the nation. But by the time this system was in place it was run by politicians, not parents. A century later the system was in such disrepair Milton Friedman realized that the only way to repair it was to make it competitive in the free market.

The discussion of school choice stimulated by Friedman’s “The Role of Government in Education” has grown and has penetrated the broad public. Most parents and citizens now believe that more choice is needed and less government and union control. Giving parents the information about the deficiencies in public education and other education choices will result in better educated students.

The greatest flaw in public education is union run government schools. Proposed federal education reforms are the same as those that failed. They propose doing more of what we’ve already done: More money, smaller classes, increased teacher pay and benefits, more schools and expanded central control. “To the public union school system, school choice is a threat, not an improvement.”

“If we are really concerned that our children receive a quality education, we must empower parents and their children to have equal access to appropriate educational opportunities.” – Milton Friedman

About the Author: William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13. His work also appears in The Center SquareThe Western JournalNeighbor NewspapersKPXJ 21 (Shreveport, LA)Killeen Daily HeraldAberdeen American NewsInsideNovaKankakee Daily JournalMonterey County WeeklyOlean Times HeraldThe Greeneville Sun and more. Follow William on Twitter @iii_haupt.

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