NOBEL LAUREATE ECONOMIST MILTON FRIEDMAN WAS AMONG THE FIRST (John Stuart Mill made a similar proposal 100 years earlier) to propose that the financing of education be separated from the administration of schools, the core idea behind school vouchers. In a famous 1955 essay, Friedman argued that there is no need for government to run schools, Instead, families could be provided with publicly financed vouchers for use at the K-12 educational institutions of their choice. Such a system, Friedman believed, would promote competition among schools vying to attract students, thus improving quality, driving down costs, and creating a more dynamic education system.
Now 90, Friedman and his wife, Rose, continue to promote the voucher idea, primarily through the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. Here, in an interview with Pearl Rock Kane, an associate professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College, Friedman reflects on the progress, obstacles, and prospects for school vouchers. (For full text, see www.educationnext.org)
PRK: We've had experiments with vouchers in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida, and we have some experience with privately funded vouchers. We also have a proliferation of charter schools. How do you feel about the proposal you made almost 50 years ago?
FRIEDMAN: What you say sounds as if a lot has been accomplished, but it's only the beginning. So far, we've had very limited programs. The Milwaukee program is the largest, and it only allows up to 15,500 students.
A more interesting thing was the Children's Scholarship Fund program, in which 1.25 million families applied for 40,000 scholarships, each of which requires that recipients spend at least $1,000 out of their own pocket. That shows that there's an enormous demand for choice, an enormous market waiting for choice to develop.
PRK: In your vision of schooling, will education be provided exclusively by the for-profit sector?
FRIEDMAN: No, I see competition. Let parents choose, I would expect an open market where there would be a wide variety of schools. There would be for-profit schools, charter schools, parochial schools, and government schools. Which survived would depend on which ones satisfied their customers, If experience is any guide, I'd expect that the government sector would shrink rapidly over time, just as has happened in mail delivery. Federal Express and UPS have taken away a large part of the business that used to be monopolized by the post office.
Moreover, there's no reason to expect that the future market will have the shape or form that our present market has. How do we know how education will develop? Why is it sensible for a child to get all his or her schooling in one brick building? Why not add partial vouchers? Why not let them spend part of a voucher for math in one place and English or science somewhere else? Why should schooling have to be in one building? Why can't a student take some lessons at home, especially now, with the availability of the Internet? Right now, as a matter of fact, one of the biggest growth areas has been home schooling. There are more children being home schooled than there are in all of the voucher programs combined.
PRK: Yes, recent estimates are just under one million.
FRIEDMAN: In a way that's evidence of the failure of our current education system. There is no other complex field in our society in which do-it-yourself beats out factory production or market production. Nobody makes his or her own car, But it still is the case that parents can perform the job of educating their children, in many cases better than our present education system. I don't know what other programs would emerge. Neither you nor I is imaginative enough to dream of what real competition, a real free market, could produce, what kind of innovations would emerge.
PRK: Have you any concern that the families with more financial and social capital might choose the best schools for their children, and other families' children would have to attend inferior schools? …