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July 31 2013

Honoring Milton Friedman

Vicki E. Alger

Today Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman would have turned 101. Though he passed away in 2006, his legacy of freedom lives on—and not just in the realm of economics.

Friedman’s 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education” made the straightforward case for decoupling government funding of schooling from government management of schooling. That is, just because schools are publicly funded doesn’t mean government should run and regulate them. As Overstock.com CEO and Board Chairman of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice Patrick M. Byrne writes in today’s Orange County Register:

On Friedman's 101st birthday, there are about 255,000 children utilizing vouchers and tax credit programs in the United States – but that is a fraction of the nearly 50 million students in government run schools. Perhaps the greatest lesson our country can take away from Friedman and his influence abroad is that we too could have so much more freedom and prosperity if we were to put parents and children ahead of entrenched special interests.

For all the talk these days about the global competitiveness of American students, Byrne highlights the many counties where parents have more freedom to choose their children’s schools than American parents:

Pakistan: This nation, which has endured widespread poverty, illiteracy and instability adopted an education reform plan with the help of the British government in 2011. In the Punjab province, the country's largest, an estimated 140,000 poor pupils who were not attending school have been able to snatch up school vouchers and enroll in low-cost private schools. An additional 80,000 students were expected to be added to the voucher rolls recently.

India: In recent years, several state governments in this enormous country have adopted the school choice concept as pilot programs. For example, in Uttarakhand at Pahal, an initiative gives vouchers to children ages 6 to 14 of rag pickers, scavengers, snake charmers and orphans from the slums of the state's urban areas. Only children who have never enrolled or who have dropped out of school for a year qualify.

Sweden: Public and private schools throughout the country have competed fiercely for students since 1993 when a voucher program was enacted. It allows tax dollars to follow a child to the school of his or her choice. Studies show that in areas where more students attend private schools, the competition has forced public schools to improve. In some urban areas private school enrollment is about 50 percent – although it averages 15 percent nationwide.

Chile: Today 3.2 million students utilize vouchers to attend the school of their choice and for 60 percent of them that is a private school. Studies have varied over the years and initial research showed improved educational outcomes across the board, but more research is needed to see if public schools improve with the competitive effects of the popular system.

Add to that list 70 percent of the countries that outperformed the U.S. in combined math and science literacy among 15-year-olds—countries ranging from Japan to Latvia.

If Friedman were alive today, he would most likely hail the variety of schooling options originating from the simple premise that parents—not politicians or special interest groups—have the right and the responsibility to choose where and how their children are educated.

These options include not only publicly-funded vouchers, but also privately-funded tax-credit scholarships, privately-managed, public charter schools, virtual schools, home schools, and most recently, educational savings accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to opt-out of public schools. In exchange, 90 percent of what a state would have spent on their children is instead deposited into an ESA, which parents can use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, and anything left over can be used toward college tuition.

In a 2005 interview, Reason Foundation’s Nick Gillespie asked Friedman, “If you succeed with universal vouchers and systemic education reform, where would that rank for you?”

Recall, replacing the draft with an all-volunteer military, advancing free-market economics, and championing limited government at home and abroad were among Friedman’s many accomplishments.

Yet he replied that when it came to parental choice in education, “It would rank first.”

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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