The Mil­ton Fried­man you didn’t know

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Cal Thomas

The death two weeks ago of Mil­ton Fried­man, “the grand­mas­ter of freemar­ket eco­nomic the­ory,” as the New York Times ac­cu­rately la­beled him, ended a great life. But there was an­other Mil­ton Fried­man many obit­u­ary writ­ers over­looked, or men­tioned only in pass­ing, that may of­fer him an even greater legacy than his eco­nomic the­o­ries about lim­ited gov­ern­ment.

In the last 10 years of his 94year life, Mr. Fried­man and his wife, Rose, ded­i­cated them­selves to school choice. They viewed school choice as a com­pan­ion to eco­nomic free­dom. Through the Mil­ton and Rose D. Fried­man Foun­da­tion they en­thu­si­as­ti­cally pro­moted school choice as a means of lib­er­at­ing the poor from fail­ing gov­ern­ment schools. Fail­ing schools pro­duced fail­ing stu­dents, they rea­soned, de­priv­ing chil­dren of the tools they would need to at­tain eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence. Mr. Fried­man first pro­posed school vouch­ers in 1955, but it wasn’t un­til 1996 that he and Rose started their foun­da­tion to take ad­van­tage of the grow­ing in­ter­est in school choice.

Mr. Fried­man did not fit the stereo­type of an eco­nomic con­ser­va­tive. He was gen­uinely in­ter­ested in help­ing the poor by giv­ing them a choice of schools that would of­fer them the best op­por­tu­nity to es­cape poverty’s cy­cle. He noted a 1999 Na­tional Opin­ion Poll for the Joint Cen­ter for Po­lit­i­cal and Eco­nomic Stud­ies in which 60 per­cent of mi­nori­ties sup­port vouch­ers and a whop­ping 87 per­cent of African-Amer­i­can par­ents ages 26 to 35 and 66.4 per­cent of blacks ages 18 to 25 fa­vor them. The main op­po­nents of school choice are the teach­ers unions and white lib­eral politi­cians who re­ceive their cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. They mostly send their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to private schools, while con­demn­ing mi­nor­ity chil­dren to poorly per­form­ing gov­ern­ment schools. How’s that for “com­pas­sion” and a com­mit­ment to help­ing the poor? The poor are helped to es­cape poverty when they get a good ed­u­ca­tion. Fail­ure to give them what has been called “the last civil right” prac­ti­cally en­sures they re­main poor.

The Fried­man Foun­da­tion’s Web site an­swers vir­tu­ally ev­ery ob­jec­tion to school choice. First, it re­ally is a choice. Uni­ver­sal vouch­ers would al­low all par­ents to di­rect funds set aside by the gov­ern­ment for ed­u­ca­tion to the school they be­lieve will best serve their child, whether the school is pub­lic or private, re­li­gious or sec­u­lar. This sep­a­rates the gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tion of schools from the gov­ern­ment fi­nanc­ing of them.

Only those who could demon­strate eco­nomic need would be el­i­gi­ble for the vouch­ers, ex­cept for par­ents whose chil­dren at­tend pub­lic schools iden­ti­fied as fail­ing. In such cir­cum­stances, all par­ents would be of­fered vouch­ers.

Won’t school choice hurt pub­lic schools by de­priv­ing them of needed funds? No, says Mr. Fried­man. “Pub­lic schools pay at­ten­tion when school choice is on the ta­ble.” He cites Florida as an ex­am­ple, not­ing that, af­ter a school choice pro­gram be­gan, “schools iden­ti­fied as fail­ing are al­ready pub­li­ciz­ing their ef­forts to im­prove by hir­ing more teach­ers, in­creas­ing funds for af­ter-school tu­tor­ing and low­er­ing class sizes. One su­per­in­ten­dent, Earl Lennard, even vowed to take a 5 per­cent pay cut if his county’s schools re­ceived a fail­ing grade.” In other words, com­pe­ti­tion works in free mar­kets and in school choice.

In Florida, Cleve­land and Mil­wau­kee, pub­lic schools have re­ceived more state and fed­eral aid for their pub­lic schools since voucher pro­grams were set up.

School choice ben­e­fits stu­dents, who ought to be the fo­cus of ed­u­ca­tion. Re­search shows that prior to re­ceiv­ing a voucher, the ma­jor­ity of par­tic­i­pat­ing stu­dents score well be­low the na­tional av­er­age on stan­dard­ized tests. Statis­ti­cians and ed­u­ca­tional re­searchers from Har­vard and the Univer­sity of Hous­ton con­ducted a re­anal­y­sis of the raw data com­piled in an ear­lier study of the Mil­wau­kee school choice pro­gram. They found choice stu­dents ben­e­fit aca­dem­i­cally from the pro­gram, show­ing sig­nif­i­cant gains in both read­ing and math­e­mat­ics by their fourth year of par­tic­i­pa­tion. And, ac­cord­ing to John F. Witte, Troy D. Sterr and Christo­pher A. Thorn, who con­ducted the ini­tial Mil­wau­kee study, “the par­ents of ‘choice’ kids are vir­tu­ally unan­i­mous in their opin­ion of the pro­gram: they love it. Par­ents are not only far more sat­is­fied with their freely cho­sen private schools than they were with their for­mer pub­lic schools, they par­tic­i­pate more ac­tively in their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion now that they’ve made the move.”

If school choice be­comes the U.S. norm, it will be Mil­ton Fried­man’s real legacy. Ev­ery poor child lib­er­ated from a failed gov­ern­ment school will owe him a debt of grat­i­tude.

Cal Thomas is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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