Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “What is wrong with our schools?” (Part 4 of transcript and video)
Here is the video clip and transcript of the film series FREE TO CHOOSE episode “What is wrong with our schools?” Part 4 of 6.
Volume 6 - What’s Wrong with our Schools
It seems to me that if one is truly interested in liberty, which I think is the ultimate value that Milton Friedman talks about, one has to be very careful how he structures the kinds of subsidies that are proposed for education so that you do not wind up with the poor in one kind of school and the rich all in the other, and very little liberty for low-income people left over, which is what is what I think he has in mind. That is, I don’t think he has that result in mind. He has the hope in mind of liberty, but that it’s going to need a certain kind of tailoring before it works that way.
SHANKER: I think your remarks about free competition are very unfair for a very simple reason. You cannot have free competition where one group of schools must accept every single student who comes along, no matter what his physical or emotional handicaps or other problems; whereas the very essence of a private school and your voucher school is that they’re going to be able to keep out the students and the finest schools that you saw in that film were schools that deliberately kept out the most difficult students. Of course you can have a wonderful school if you pick students whose parents __
(Several talking at once)
SHANKER: __ no, no. Whose parents are so highly motivated that they’re willing to spend more money and willing to go out of their way to do something like that. Now the public schools have to take the handicapped, must provide bilingual education, must engage in bussing or other programs in terms of integration, must do all of these things. Whereas the private school can come along and say, well if your child has no problems, you know what we can do? We can offer you a school where you don’t have to sit next a child with these other problems. We’re gonna put you next to other children who are advantaged.
SHANNON: I think in the real world there is no competition between private schools and public schools because private schools, especially parochial schools, do not have to comply with Federal and State mandates and constitutional limitations and things of that sort.
McKENZIE: Dr. Anrig.
ANRIG: I think the part of the film that speaks to the greater parental involvement, I agree with very enthusiastically. However, I think the solution is the wrong solution for the problem that you identify. I think the role of public education in a democracy is not akin to that of the marketplace. The purpose for the common school is not the same as the purpose for the marketplace. We are trying in our public schools to create a democracy, to create an educated electorate. If you’re going to do that, you have to have the common school.
McKENZIE: How far do you accept his analysis of the present condition of the public education system? A pretty drastic analysis.
ANRIG: Well, I think he’s established three straw men that I think have to be challenged with all respect, Professor Friedman. The first is that there is a profession of education out there which has run amuck. We have the most decentralized system in the world in the American education. Sixteen thousand school districts that are governed not by the profession, but by elected citizen representatives, most of whom are parents. Secondly, you long, as I would, for the good old days of the one-room school in Vermont. That school served a small proportion of the youngsters for a short period of time, and those days will never come back. Third, you as an example of American education, a troubled high school in an urban center.
McKENZIE: In your bailiwick.
ANRIG: In my bailiwick, which is not typical of where the American student goes to school, first of all; and secondly is not typical of the City of Boston. And I do think it’s important to point out that that particular school, at the time that you took filming there, or your production crew did, was in the middle of a desegregation process that was not anywhere remarked about in the film. So it was not a typical example either of education in America or of education in Boston.
McKENZIE: The one unsurprising thing about these comments is that all of the opposition to allowing the market work comes from people who have a very strong vested interest in the present public school system. I am not proposing, we are not proposing to destroy the public school system. We are only asking that the public school system should be free to compete, should be open to competition, if it is really as good as you people make it out to be, it has nothing to worry about. Now, in terms of your comment, of course there’s a great deal of decentralization. We showed a very good school in this film as well as a very bad school. There are many good schools, and the more decentralized the control, in my opinion, the more satisfactory is the schooling. The real problem is concentrated in those areas where decentralization is broken down. Where you have moved to much greater centralization, much greater control, and the main trouble areas are in the large cities. That’s why we picked that school to show. In response to the question of the excellence of the schooling that’s coming, I think there is nobody who can question the declining SAT scores, the declining scores on exams, the declining performance in the schools, the fact that there is widespread dissatisfaction, that many schools, not all schools, some schools, in urban areas are more accurately described as centers to keep people off the street than as educational institutions.
SHANKER: When you have a free market, there are dangers that go along with that market. Now, we know that there are people in our society who buy consumer’s reports, and there are people who do a great deal of research before they buy something, and there are other people who are taken in by the Crest commercials and instant appeal to give them some sort of a gimmick with a thing. And I think that the evidence is pretty clear that if you take middle class and wealthier families they are gonna do a good deal of research. They may very well be able to invest some additional money of their own to take some inconvenience. And if you have an open system of this sort it may very well be that the poorest parents are gonna have to take what is most convenient for them. What is going to fit in with their own work schedules, what is not going to require additional sums of money. And there is no doubt in my mind that you set up a system of free choice of this sort, you’re going to end up with the poor in one set of schools of their own on the basis of a good deal of gimmicks that will be offered to them.
COONS: They can’t learn, right? They’re __
FRIEDMAN: Excuse me, Mr. Shanker. I want to ask you one question: How do you explain the fact that there is no area of the free market, no area of the private market, in which the poor people who live in the ghettos of our major cities are as disadvantaged as they are with respect to the kind of schooling they can get. I want you to name me any aspect in the kind of supermarkets they can go to. They’re not as disadvantaged even in the kind of housing they can occupy as they are in respect of the kind of schooling their children can go to. How does __
SHANKER: What’s your evidence for that? I don’t think you have any evidence for that.
COONS: But, they’re trying to get out.
FRIEDMAN: They’re trying desperately to get out. Families with very low incomes are trying to get into the parochial schools that you’re talking about.
SHANKER: Exactly. And they’re trying to get out of the slums, and they’re trying to get into different neighborhoods __
FRIEDMAN: They are trying to, sure.
SHANKER: __ they’re trying to do all sorts of things.
FRIEDMAN: They’re doing better on that. They’re doing better on that. And instead, in a free choice system you would have more heterogeneous schools in my opinion, far less segregation by social and economic class than you now have. Because __
(Several talking at once.)
McKENZIE: Dr. Anrig.
ANRIG: It just doesn’t hold up by the very examples he’s used.
FRIEDMAN: Excuse me. It so happens that right now, the parochial schools are the only alternative really available to low-income people.
SHANKER: Do they take all the children who want to get in?
FRIEDMAN: And the reason for that is that it’s very hard to sell something when other people are giving it away. Anybody who wants to send his child to a nonpublic school has to pay twice for it. Once in the form of taxes and once in the form of tuition. Under the kind of voucher scheme that Jack Coons and I would support, that difficulty would be eliminated. You would now have a situation in which the low-income people would have the kind of bargaining power, the kind of possibility of choice, that those of us who are in the upper-income groups have had all along. (Several talking at once.)
McKENZIE: I want to move __ Jack Coons. Jack Coons, I want you to come in now. I know you’re in principle advocating the voucher system. Could you give us the case as you see it. I know you’ve got your differences with Milton on it, but let’s have the case.
COONS: What we are doing in California is establishing a form of change, possible change, proposing a change, in which lower-income people will get information along with the opportunity to go to any school of their choice and transportation to get there. Of course they need information. Anybody needs information in a market. And they need information from independent sources, not from the schools themselves, and that’s the way the initiative is designed, to come from independent sources. Now, we believe that ordinary people can make the best judgments for their children about where they should go, if they’re given good professional advice. And it also helps teachers because they can, for the first time, be professionals. They can act like real professionals, because they don’t have a captive audience. They don’t dominate their client, they respect their client, and they deal with them on the basis of a contract. What could be better for teachers than for the first time to become people who are dealing in a democratic and respectful way with clientele instead of with captives.
SHANNON: I am concerned that a voucher system will lead towards havens for white flight, will lead towards a duel school system in the sense that you have one school system operating under one set of rules, the other school system, public school system, operating under carefully articulated educational policy in any given state. And that’s why I think it’s __
COONS: Exactly, in Los Angeles County the movement to private schools last year was less, a smaller percentage than in the statewide pattern.
SHANKER: You may have five or ten percent of the students __
FRIEDMAN: Right, right.
SHANKER: __ you have very severe problems and come from families with very severe problems, and those students take up 95 percent of the time of the teachers and the administrators and the other children aren’t getting an education. Now, you’re gonna set up your voucher school. Are your voucher schools going to accept these tough children?