Milton Friedman on School Vouchers

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman had an interesting article, “Free to Choose,” in yesterday’s OpinionJournal.

Little did I know when I published an article in 1955 on “The Role of Government in Education” that it would lead to my becoming an activist for a major reform in the organization of schooling, and indeed that my wife and I would be led to establish a foundation to promote parental choice. The original article was not a reaction to a perceived deficiency in schooling. The quality of schooling in the United States then was far better than it is now, and both my wife and I were satisfied with the public schools we had attended. My interest was in the philosophy of a free society.


What really led to increased interest in vouchers was the deterioration of schooling, dating in particular from 1965 when the National Education Association converted itself from a professional association to a trade union. Concern about the quality of education led to the establishment of the National Commission of Excellence in Education, whose final report, “A Nation at Risk,” was published in 1983. It used the following quote from Paul Copperman to dramatize its own conclusion:

“Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”

“A Nation at Risk” stimulated much soul-searching and a whole series of major attempts to reform the government educational system. These reforms, however extensive or bold, have, it is widely agreed, had negligible effect on the quality of the public school system. Though spending per pupil has more than doubled since 1970 after allowing for inflation, students continue to rank low in international comparisons; dropout rates are high; scores on SATs and the like have fallen and remain flat. Simple literacy, let alone functional literacy, in the United States is almost surely lower at the beginning of the 21st century than it was a century earlier. And all this is despite a major increase in real spending per student since “A Nation at Risk” was published.


Throughout this long period, we have been repeatedly frustrated by the gulf between the clear and present need, the burning desire of parents to have more control over the schooling of their children, on the one hand, and the adamant and effective opposition of trade union leaders and educational administrators to any change that would in any way reduce their control of the educational system.

It’s interesting that an idea can take half a century to gain momentum. As Friedman notes, though, school vouchers were merely theoretical in 1955 since almost everyone was satisfied with the caliber of our public schools (with the notable exception, of course, of many of the segregated schools for blacks). Even so, that the education establishment has been able to block the most obvious reform for over two decades since the public awakened to the problem is quite remarkable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. There’s an interesting comparison between the 50-year wait for vouchers to reach prime time: the suffragettes took about fifty years to get the vote, IIRC.

  2. I think Education is a very important area and it is pretty clear that students need education financing. So, who is going to provide that? Govt. or the market?

    I believe market can easily finance education but it needs enforcement support from the Govt. The way to do this to allow students and their financiers to enter agreements that will allow students to repay their financiers through a share in their future earnings.

    IRS can act as a collection agency for the financiers and can also use tax withholding. Once we do that then role of Govt. in education will be reduced and Govt. will only enforce contracts just like it does for mortgages, stock market and so many other legal transactions and contracts.