Friedman Friday” Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “What is wrong with our schools?” (Part 2 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 2 of 6.

Volume 6 – What’s Wrong with our Schools

Groups of concerned parents and teachers decided to do something about it. They used private funds to take over empty stores and they set up what became known as store front schools. One of the first and most successful was Harlem Prep. It was designed to cater to students for whom conventional education had failed. Many of the teachers didn’t have the right pieces of paper to qualify for employment in public schools. That didn’t stop them from doing a good job here. A lot of the students had been misfits and dropouts. Here they found the sort of teaching they wanted. After all, they had made a deliberate choice to come to Harlem Prep. It was a very successful school. Many students went on to college and some to leading colleges.

But after some years, the school ran short of cash. The board of education offered Ed Carpenter, the head of the school and one of its founders, tax money, provided he would conform to their regulations. After a long battle to preserve independence, he finally gave in. The school was taken over by bureaucrats.
Ed Carpenter, Former Principal, Harlem Preparatory School: I felt that a school like Harlem Prep would certainly die and not prosper under the rigid bureaucracy of a board of education. We had to see what was going to happen. I didn’t believe it was going to be good. I am right. What has happened since we have come to the board of education is not all good __ it is not all bad __ but it is more bad than good.
Friedman: The school may not look different yet, but 30 of the former teachers have gone. Ed Carpenter has resigned. The school is being moved to a traditional school building. No one, except maybe the bureaucrats, is very optimistic about its future.
Unfortunately, the strangling of successful experiments by bureaucrats is not unusual. The same thing happened in California, at a place called Alum Rock. For three years parents at this school could choose to send their children to any of several specially created mini-schools, each with a different curriculum. The experiment was designed to restore a choice to those who were most closely involved, the parents and the teachers.
Don Ayers, Former Principal, Millard McCollam Elementary School: Probably the most significant thing that happened was that the teachers, for the first time, had some power and they were able to build the curriculum to fit the needs of the children as they saw it. The state and local school board did not dictate the kind of curriculum that was used in the McCollam School. The parents became more involved in this school. They attended more meetings. They also had a power to pull their child out of that particular mini-school if they chose another mini-school
Friedman: Giving parents greater choice had a dramatic effect on educational quality. In terms of test scores, this school went from 13th to 2nd place among the schools in its district, but the experiment is now over. When school resumed after the summer vacation, this was just another public school, back in the hands of the bureaucrats.
Giving parents a choice is a good idea, yet it always meets with opposition from the educational establishment. This is Ashford, a town in the south of England. For four years, there have been efforts here to introduce an experiment in greater parental choice. Parents would be given vouchers covering the cost of schooling. They could use the voucher to send their child to any school of their choice. I have long believed that children, teachers, all of us, would benefit from a voucher system. But the head master here, who happens also to be secretary of the local teacher’s union, has very different views about introducing vouchers.
Mr. Dennis Gee, Headmaster, Newtown Primary School: We see this as a barrier between us and the parent. This sticky little piece of paper in their hand, coming in and under due writ you will do this or else. We make our judgment because we believe it is in the best interest of every Willy and every little Johnny that we have got, and not because someone is going to say, if you don’t do it, we will do that. It is this sort of philosophy of the marketplace that we object to.
Friedman: In other words, Mr. Gee objects to giving the customer, in this case the parent, anything to say about the kind of schooling his child gets. Instead, the bureaucrats should decide.
Mr. Gee: We are answerable to parents and to our government bodies, through the inspectorate of the county council and through her Majesty’s inspectorate to the secretary of state. These are professionals who are able to make professional judgments.
Friedman: But things look very different from the point of view of parents. Jason Walton’s parents had to fight the bureaucracy, the professionals, for a year before they could get him into the school that they thought was best suited to his needs.
Maurice Walton, Parent: As the present system stands, I think virtually parents have got no freedom of choice whatsoever. They are told what is good for them by the teachers and are told that the teachers are doing a great job, and I just got no sign at all. If the voucher system were introduced, I think it would bring teachers and parents together, I think closer. A parent that is worried about his child would remove their child from the school that wasn’t giving a good service and take it to one that was. And if a school is going to crumble because it’s got nothing but vandalism, it is generally slack on discipline, and the children aren’t learning well, then it is a good thing from my point of view.
Friedman: Even good schools like this would benefit from a voucher system. From having to shape up or see parents take children elsewhere, but that is not how it looks to the head master.
Gee: I am not sure that parents know what is best educationally for their children. They know what is best for them to eat, they know the best environment they can provide at home, but we’ve been trained to ascertain the problems of children, to detect their weaknesses, and put light in things that need putting light, and we want to do this freely, with the cooperation of parents, and not under any undue strains.
Walton: I can understand the teacher saying yes, it is a gun at my head, but they have got the same gun at the parents’ head at the moment. The parent goes up to the teacher and says, well I am not satisfied with what you are doing, and the teacher can say, well tough, you can’t take him away, you can’t remove him, you can’t do what you like so go away and stop bothering me. That can be the attitude of some teachers today __ it often is. But now that the positions are being reversed and the roles are changed, I can only say tough on the teachers __ let them pull their socks up and give us a better deal and let us participate more.
Friedman: In America there is one part of education where the market has had extensive scope, that is higher education. These students attend Dartmouth College, a private school founded in 1769. The college is supported entirely by private donations, income from endowment, and student fees. It has a high reputation and a fine record. Ninety-five percent of the students who enroll here complete their undergraduate course and get a degree.
The students here pay high fees, fees which cover most of the cost of the schooling which they get. Most of them get the money from their parents, but some are on scholarships provided either by Dartmouth or by outside sources. Still others take out loans to pay the costs of schooling, loans which they will have to pay back years later. Still others work either during the school year or during the summer to pay the costs. Many students work in the college’s own hotel. This girl is helping to pay her own way which is pretty good evidence that she is serious about getting an education.
Parents of perspective students come here on shopping expeditions to check out the product before they buy.
What you have here is a private market in education and the college is selling schooling. The students are buying schooling. And as in most such markets, both sides have a strong incentive to serve one another.
For the college, it has a strong incentive to provide the kind of schooling that its students want. 
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  • Alberto Cappas  On June 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    As a first graduate of Harlem Prep School in 1968, I came to believe and learn that government or beauracracy kills great ideas, not help the idea. We must support free enterprise to nourish on its own.. The New York City Board of Education killed Harlem Prep. Sincerely, Alberto O. Cappas, president / founder, The Educational Pledge, (

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