“Unfortunately, in recent years our educational record has become tarnished. Parents complain about the declining quality of the schooling their children receive. Many are even more disturbed about the dangers to their children’s physical well-being. Teachers complain that the atmosphere in which they are required to teach is often not conducive to learning. Increasing numbers of teachers are fearful about their physical safety, even in the classroom. Taxpayers complain about growing costs.”
The passage goes on with even more ills Milton Friedman saw in public schools — in 1980.
The problems may sound familiar, but Friedman wasn’t seeing the future. He was, in his classic book “Free to Choose,” describing the public-schools system as it was then. Sadly, on the whole, that system has spent the last three decades consuming ever more money without significant improvement.
This Tuesday, which would have been the Nobel Prize-winning economist’s 100th birthday, will mark a possible inflection point for Georgia’s schools. It is the last day of our primary season — and thus the last day before a fall campaign begins to pass a constitutional amendment expanding choice for students, parents and teachers.
The amendment facing voters in November would restore the ability of local school reformers to get state permission to launch charter schools, publicly funded schools freed from many onerous rules that encumber teachers. They could do so until the Georgia Supreme Court last year struck down the arrangement.
Now, charter schools are subject to school boards, which often won’t cede control or money to would-be competitors.
Passing the amendment will mean local control once again extends past school boards, to parents and teachers who are more interested in results than protecting the status quo.
Though Friedman later endorsed charter schools, they were not his solution in “Free to Choose.” (They didn’t exist for another decade.) Rather, he proposed a voucher for parents to use the tax dollars allocated for their children’s education at the school of their choice. But the arguments Friedman made for vouchers apply well to school choice more broadly.
Then as now, the best public schools tended to be in wealthy suburbs, “where parental control remains very real,” with the worst in inner cities.
The tragic, ironic result, he wrote, “is that a system dedicated to … giving all children equal educational opportunity, should in practice exacerbate the stratification of society and provide highly unequal educational opportunity.”
Friedman noted the claims of many “educational reformers” that parents in poor areas have little interest or ability when it comes to making school choices for their children.
“That,” he said, “is a gratuitous insult. Such parents have frequently had limited opportunity to choose. However, U.S. history has amply demonstrated that, given the opportunity, they have often been willing to sacrifice a great deal, and have done so wisely, for their children’s welfare.”
He noted minorities ought to be the first to demand school choice, for they “would benefit most” from having choices. Instead, then as now (though this is slowly changing), for too many of them “control over schooling [is] a source of political patronage and power.”
A dearth of choices, a fear that only “bad” students would remain in traditional public schools — Friedman anticipated these and other objections. For anyone unconvinced about school choice, “Free to Choose” holds up very well.
– By Kyle Wingfield